If you stay to the outside areas of the grocery store and stick to meat and whole produce products it’s hard to go wrong.  When you enter the isles of the store filled with the boxes and bags of packaged food it’s easy to be misled into making bad choices.  You have never picked up an apple and had to look at the nutrition facts or ingredients.  There isn’t an issue looking for gluten, corn, or artificial sweeteners and preservatives in a bundle of spinach.  Unfortunately the rest of the store is a black hole of marketing and mumbo jumbo to confuse the consumer into being unaware of what they are actually buying.

It would be too easy if everything that was in the health section was actually good for you, or if everything with a fancy sponsored label like hearth healthy, or organic etc was actually true.  Thats not the case so a these common mistakes often catch people off guard.

  1. Health Sections Do NOT Equal Healthy Food – If your store has a health section that is a good thing but it doesn’t mean everything there is actually healthy for you.  The health section is simply an area where the products are bing marketed to a different demographic (the person willing to pay more money for healthier food).  It actually correlates more to costing more than beneficial to your health.  The companies making these products are trying to increase profit margins as well and will use cheap or not so healthy ingredients often where they can.  You have to treat foods in the health section with just as much scrutiny, and if your lucky it will simply reduce the amount of time it takes you to find the things you want.
  2. Front side labeling is only half the story – Food companies will always put the good on the front of the label, easy to see.  Whether it is low fat, low carb, gluten free, or organic, they will make sure you know it.  This is where they are trying to get your attention.  They are not going to come out up front and list hydrogenated oils, sugar, GMO ingredients, or other pitfalls.  Sometimes it is very misleading.  Recently I thought I got lucky and found a mayonnaise product that was made with olive oil.  After a close look I realized that soybean and canola oil which are far from healthy but cheap to make were actually the main oils used, and a small amount of olive oil was added to that mix to build up the label.

  3. Gluten Free doesn’t mean Free to Eat – I have all my clients avoid gluten containing foods to improve their health.  Taking gluten away from a food and replacing the wheat product with another grain or starch does not make it a health food.  This only makes it safe for people with celiac to eat without having an immune reaction to it.  Cookies and cake are still cookies and cake.  In fact most gluten free foods that use alternative grains and starches have more sugar and starches than their wheat alternatives.  If the wheat ingredients are replaced by GMO corn ingredients you are simply swapping one problem for another and should avoid that food as well.  Things like almond meal, coconut flour, and brown rice flour are better alternatives.  Watch the labels for corn and starch products.  Also remember that tapioca while gluten free is also a very high glycemic starch as well.  
  4. Organic Dairy is Not the Gold Standard – Dairy cows that are fed an organic diet are better than non organic, but the real gold standard is dairy from pasture raised or grass fed cows.  Cows fed organic grain are still fed an unnatural diet or corn, wheat, and soy.  It’s harder to find grass fed dairy, but the fat content and proteins in the dairy are much better for you.  The other important thing is to make sure its free of antibiotics and hormones.  Some research is now linking the hormones given the cows to the hormone issues in the humans consuming the milk.  It’s not just rBGH either.  Its estrogen, insulin and other hormones that are approved in many products that say no rBGH.  
  5. Understanding What is on the Label – These are some food label definitions from the US Food and Drug Administration.  Note that most of them a based on a per serving basis which can be misleading in many cases.FAT FREE – The product has less than .5 grams of fat per serving

    Zero Grams Trans Fat – The product has less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving

    LOW FAT – The product has 3 grams or less of fat per serving

    REDUCED or LESS FAT – The product has at least 25% less fat per serving than the full-fat version

    LITE or LIGHT – This one is ambiguous and can have a number of meanings:
    -the product has fewer calories or half the fat of the non-light version,
    -the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food is 50 percent less than the non-light version,
    -a food is clearer in color (like light instead of dark corn syrup).

    CALORIE FREE – The product has less than 5 calories per serving

    LOW CALORIE – The product has 40 calories or less per serving

    REDUCED or FEWER CALORIES – The product has at least 25 percent fewer calories per serving than the non-reduced version.

    Front Label Marketing Phrases

    “Fortified”, “enriched”, “added”, “extra”, and “plus” usually mean the food has been altered or processed in some way.

    “Fruit drinks” usually means little or no real fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead look for products that say “100% fruit juice”.

    “Natural” or “made from natural” simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source. Once processed, the food may not resemble anything “natural.”

    “Organically grown,” “organic,” “pesticide-free,” and “no artificial ingredients” say very little about the nutritional value or safety of the product. Trust only those labels that say “certified organically grown.”

    “Sugar-free,” “sugarless,” or “no added sugar” tells you nothing about sugar derivatives or sugar substitutes, which yield just as many calories as table sugar and may be more harmful to you than sugar.

    Ultimately they things you want to see on the front of the label are :

    Gluten Free

    Certified Organic

    Non GMO –  This one is becoming more and more important

    No Trans Fat (double check the ingredients for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils)

    Everything else like carbohydrates, sugars, sweeteners, fats and oils should be investigated on the back.  But like I said from the beginning, if you stick to whole foods, then there are no labels to read and it’s hard to go wrong eating the things nature provided for us.