I love going to the grocery store: I could spend hours walking the aisles, taking in the sights and smells, and checking out new products.
I’ve noticed, however, that my happy trips can take an awkward turn when I run into a fellow mom or one of my patients. They’ll often point to their cart, and silently nod for approval for all the healthy items they are bringing home. In too many carts, I see “good for you assurances” on foods that aren’t, well, good for you.
Here are top five offenders lurking in your grocery store:
1. The 'made from' or 'made with' label
All too often, the “made with” label is there to distract you so you fail to see what else is in the product.
Start with “whole grains," for example. While it’s great that a product is made with whole grains, technically, you could be eating stripped grains with a little whole grain thrown in. Look for a “100 percent” label on your grain products.
2. The 'only this many calories per serving' label
When we start worrying about the quantity of calories, we stop caring about the quality. Although eating more calories than you need may contribute to weight gain, calorie amounts are not a testament to nutrient density.
Nuts have a lot of calories, yet they are one of the healthiest foods on earth.
Resist the urge to purchase a processed, artificial food for the lure of how many calories it contains. You’ll most likely be paying for it in the end by overindulging.
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3. The 'all natural' assurance
Natural has not yet been defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA has only accepted the use of the term to mean “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.”
The problem with this limited definition is that it does not contain information related to food processing or use of pesticides. Plus, there are plenty of natural products, like sugar, that don’t contribute to good health.
Until more detailed criteria are developed, don’t expect the “natural” claim to mean your food was just pulled from the ground or a tree.
A 2011 study from Cornell University compared two identical chocolate chip cookies. One was labeled as regular and the other as organic. Study participants showed a preference for the organic option based on taste and nutrient density — they thought the cookie must be lower in fat and calories. They were also willing to pay more for the organic option. Again, the two cookies were 100 percent identical.
This is attributing healthiness to a product, simply based on a label.
Going organic is often a great idea, but if you see the claim used to sell cookies, crackers and candy, don’t assume it’s a better version of its non-organic counterpart.
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5. No high fructose corn syrup
A lack of high fructose corn syrup does not give a product a free pass. Bragging about a lack of high fructose corn syrup is a case of a manufacturer trying to persuade you that all the other sugars in the product shouldn’t be looked at with as much disdain. The item could still have an excess amount of other sugars, making you less satisfied, and more willing to eat and buy more.
We eat too much sugar to begin with, from all sources — about 130 pounds of it per year. That's almost 60,000 grams of the sweet stuff.
Bottom line: Focus on eating less sugar overall, not on eliminating just one type.
Here’s the secret to eating healthy:
Eat real food. Don’t rely on the front of the package. Instead, focus on the ingredient list to assess the quality of the product. The healthiest foods on the planet need no marketing at all.
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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.