"Mom, let's get some organic candy?" "How about some "all natural ice cream"? "Natural" and "healthy" are commonly used buzzwords that make consumers believe that they are buying products that are better for them and for the environment. These tossed around words are bewildering for both kids and parents -- and fuzzy terminology makes it difficult to understand what you should actually be choosing at the grocery store or restaurant. Although the FDA recently announced it began discussions to change the "healthy" nutrient claim regulation, the current guidelines are from 30 years ago and have an outdated, fractured view of fats and sugar. For example, according to the rules in use, frosted flakes are healthier than an avocado. Going to the grocery store or out to eat can bring you face to face with greenwashed claims, so we compiled 8 easy-to-follow tips when choosing food for you and your family.
1. Know which words count and which are meaningless.
Basically, labels like “natural,” “wholesome,” and “nutritious” don’t mean much. They sound healthy but the FDA hasn’t issued stringent guidelines on how these labels are determined and who can use them. Recently, Kind Bars had to remove the word “healthy” from their labels due to the high levels of saturated fat in their bars. The FDA then decided that healthy can now be reapplied to the bars “in the context of the company’s philosophy, rather than a nutritional claim.” Confused yet? We certainly are. The term “organic” is more regulated (see #5) although it doesn’t guarantee a product is healthy and refers to a less toxic agricultural farming process. Meaningful terminology for foods such as eggs (cage-free, for example) vary in their accuracy. Pay less attention to the potentially greenwashed terms and focus more on finding products with a short list of recognizable ingredients.
2. Stick with whole foods products, not necessarily products from Whole Foods.
Just because a product can be found at Whole Foods (or any other “natural” grocery store) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthy. You can and will find processed and junk food virtually anywhere, even hiding under the guise of being organic or vegan. Shopping the perimeter of the store, where the produce is placed, is generally a good idea and an easy way to avoid the rows and rows of sugar-and-salt heavy snacks. Fill your cart with lots of fruits and veggies, some veg-friendly proteins including tofu and a variety of beans, and a plethora of grains like quinoa, millet, and rice. Of course, you (and your kiddos) will likely have some favorite foods that may be found on the inner aisles, but first visiting the fresh foods areas will allow you to see what is on offer and deter you from stocking up on heavily processed, canned, and artificially preserved foods with depleted nutritional content.
3. Avoid over-the-top and magic bullet claims.
Last time we checked, there was not a single product that is going to transform you into a supermodel or a supermom. Be wary of the “greatest thing ever” claims on products. Because so many foods and drugs are not heavily regulated or fall into the somewhat vague “supplements” categories (which is pretty much totally unregulated), companies can make outrageous claims as to the effectiveness of their products without much to back them up.
4. Keep an eye on sugar and all of its derivatives.
Refined sugar is absolutely everywhere, even in places we wouldn’t necessarily expect such as mustard and tomato sauce — and pretty much everything that is gluten-free. Kids are eating three times the recommended daily intake of sugar, and reducing their levels of this sweetener can improve several health measures within ten days. In addition to sugar, look out for sugar under any of its 60 plus other names including corn syrup (high-fructose and otherwise), maltodetxrin, fructose, and sucrose. Even natural sweeteners such as maple syrup and coconut sugar should be used in moderation.
Image via USDA National Organic Program
5. Learn about the differences in levels of organic.
While choosing organic doesn’t necessarily translate into healthier fare (organic donuts, anyone?), it is one way to ensure that the farming production processes behind your foods are less toxic for the earth and for the people inhabiting it. The organic label was developed in 1990, and food produced this way eschews conventional pesticides, GMOs, and artificial colors to name a few. Products listed as 100% Organic include those with ALL of their ingredients being certified as such. Organic is used when 95% or more of the ingredients are organic. Made with Organic Ingredients is a term reserved for products with at least 70% organic ingredients. You can always check on the back of the label for which ingredients are organic (usually denoted with a little asterisk). We’re not trying to discourage anyone from choosing organic products, but just know that the label is optional (i.e some companies that have organic production guidelines choose not to use the label on their products) and also that some smaller farms and companies choose not to get certified because of the cost of being approved for the label. For more details on the term organic and the process and significance behind it, check out this post.
Image via flickr user ebruli
6. Ask for nutritional information.
Most restaurants and cafes have nutritional information on file, which is essential for people with allergies. Very few eateries actually advertise or volunteer these details, so don’t be afraid to ask. Some of this lack of transparency is because companies want to keep you in the dark about the ridiculous amount of weird and suspect ingredients and additives lurking in your coffee or your sandwich or the surprisingly high calorie count for your salad. Even if your favorite lunch spot touts serving a salad made from organic lettuce and spinach, if it’s drenched in a pound of creamy dressing and served topped with a variety of cheeses and nuts, you may actually be better off ordering a less virtuous sounding, but surprisingly more nutritional meal. The point is: don’t be afraid to ask. You have a right to know what you’re eating!
Image via Nibble + Squeak’s Instagram page
7. Keep in mind portion-size and flavor enhancers when dining out.
Ignorance is bliss for most people when they eat out, with restaurants serving portion sizes that are equivalent in calories to the recommendations for an entire day. For our little ones with their lightening speed metabolisms, these supersized meals might not seem like a problem, but getting kids to understand appropriate portions and smarter choices (i.e. salad or steamed veggies occasionally instead of french fries to accompany every single meal) from an early age helps to ingrain healthy behaviors. Also, not only are portions bigger, but the foods themselves are often made with hefty additions of salt, butter, cream, and other flavor enhancers that make food taste delicious but are used in quantities that the home cook would be shocked by. You can always ask (though your wish may not be granted) for chefs to use minimal oil and to leave out certain ingredients.
8. Remember that even truly healthy food has to be consumed in moderation.
We wish we could tell you that if you are eating good-for-you foods, you can eat as much of them as you want. But the fact is, too much of a good thing is still too much and can have negative side effects on your health. Whether you are dining out or cooking for yourself, vary what you get so your palate will stay alert and you won’t go on autopilot, shoving food into your mouth mechanically and without enjoyment. As Michael Pollan said, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” Sweet and simple and an effective guide for shopping and eating out.