The convenience of packaged foods has made them the foundation of the modern diet. As evidence continues to mount that whole foods are the healthier option, the health-conscious shopper is faced with a tough choice. Which is more important: health or convenience? Fortunately, not all packaged foods are created equal. You CAN pick healthy packaged foods. Just ask yourself these five quick questions before putting that box or bag in your cart.
1. Are the ingredients recognizable?
Ignore the highlighted phrases on the front of the package, which are most likely just advertising. The easiest way to determine if that frozen meal is really good for you is to check out the ingredients. Can you pronounce them? If the ingredient list is dominated by healthy whole foods, then you’ve found a winner. If instead you find hyphenated, scientific-sounding words or a list that wraps around to a second side of the box, you are holding an over-processed box of junk food.
2. How many servings are in the package?
One sneaky way manufacturers attempt to make their product seem healthier is to use a ridiculously small serving size. A quick glance at the nutrition panel on that can of soup shows 250 calories. Sounds perfect, right? A closer look reveals that there are supposedly two servings in the can, which means you’ll actually be getting 500 calories. Sneaking a peek at the servings per package can help to catch a diet disaster before it happens.
3. How do the numbers look?
It’s easy to get dazed and confused by the nutrition panels on food packages. If you don’t have any specific dietary or medical concerns, you can feel free to focus on just a few of those numbers to speed up your food shopping: calories, sugar, protein, and fiber. Keep the first two (calories and sugar) low to avoid piling on extra weight. Keep the last two (protein and fiber) high to fill you up and keep your body running properly. If you do have any medical conditions or other concerns, ask your doctor which other numbers you should take note of.
4. Is there any trans fat?
Trans-fat is the recently discovered ingredient that is wreaking havoc on cholesterol levels and clogging arteries. It is now listed in grams on the nutrition information box, but according to the Mayo Clinic, manufacturers are allowed to round down the amount if there is less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, possibly making the number misleading. So it’s easier to find the hidden trans fat in the ingredient list. Look for the words “partially hydrogenated” and you’ll find the trans fat. If it’s there, find a similar product that doesn’t have it.
5. Could I make this just as easily with fresh food?
The frozen, bagged, and boxed aisles in the supermarket are full of food that could be made in minimal time, and for less money, with fresh ingredients. As an article from WebMD clearly explains, fresh whole food is best, so save the packaged food for meals that are too complicated to make from scratch.
Packaged foods can be a part of a well-balanced diet if you know what to look for. Just answer these five questions to pick healthy packaged foods with confidence.