organic vegetarian meals for the trail

Cherry Picking Packaged Foods

Grocery Store

How can you tell if the company is trying to sell you an inferior product when it is dressed in so many health claims? Food labels assert healthful claims on packaged products to get you to purchase them.  If you know what to look for in the ingredient list, you can easily find out how worthy it really is.

My parents have been exploring the benefits of a vegetarian diet since the beginning of this year in order to improve their health, and I’ve been passing along all kinds of information to help them with the transition. It is heartening when those close to you finally get to experience what you’ve been practicing for so long. In doing so, they’ve become entangled in the conflicting information out there. Questions such as these started pouring in, “What can I substitute for X? Is this considered a “whole” grain? How can the label state that when this ingredient is listed? Can you believe the sodium content of this product?! This is frustrating, how can I find anything to eat? ”

There is so much conflicting information out there. How do you know who to believe?

I remember those same thoughts 15 years ago when I became a vegetarian!

My world has changed since then and I have forgotten how confusing it can be.  When home, the majority of my food is now purchased unpackaged (fresh) or from self-service bulk bins. It takes 30 minutes a week to gather the food I need. The rest is grown in a garden or delivered to my doorstep from a local produce delivery service.

Most people with special dietary needs are adept at reading labels to determine if the food contains any hidden ingredients or allergens. Even those without dietary restrictions are becoming more interested in understanding food ingredients. There appears to be an increasing interest in healthier eating, and identifying “healthy” starts with learning how to read a food label.

Yes, food labels on packaged foods.

The ultra health maniacs often declare, “If it has a label, don’t eat it!” Well, packaged foods are a necessity – at home and away from home. Packaging is a necessary component of food processing and distribution. I know I could never give up packaged treats like tempeh, bread, OJ, pasta, and coffee.

How to determine what packaged foods are good

1. Read the Ingredient List.

The list of ingredients contains the basic components of the food item and must be printed on all packaging in order of decreasing weight. Thus, the first 3 – 4 ingredients make up the majority of the food and matter the most. Make sure you scan all ingredients (see #3 – ingredient fraud). If you are interested in purchasing an online product and it fails to disclose the ingredients on the site, check with the manufacturer directly. If the manufacturer doesn’t offer the details, don’t buy it.

2. Learn Ingredients.

Don’t know what the ingredient is? Pick up a copy of a food dictionary. One we refer to often is “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Additives” by Ruth Winter.

Common Food Ingredients to Avoid:

  • Saturated Fat. Animal proteins, especially those that are processed – such as hot dogs – contain a host of chemical preservatives and high sodium. Promotes heart disease and cancer.
  • Trans Fat. Identify by any of these words: “partially hydrogenated,” “fractionated,” or “hydrogenated. Promotes heart disease, nervous system disorders, tumor growth.
  • Refined Carbohydrates. Identify by “refined” or “enriched.” Promotes diabetes, obesity and nutrient loss.
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup. Identify also by “corn syrup solids”, “corn sweetener,” and “corn syrup.
  • Flavor Enhancers. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium guanylate or inosinate.
  • Artificial Flavors, Colors, Sweeteners, and Preservatives. Sulfites, Nitrites, Nitrates, Monosodium glutamate (MSG), FD&C colors, Carmine, Aspartame, Saccharin, BHA, BHT, BHQT.
  • Fat Replacements – Olestra, carrageenan, polydextrose, modified food starch.
  • Food/Drinks labeled “Diet”, “Low-Fat”, “No-Fat” or “Reduced-Fat”. These foods use additives, unhealthy fillers,  artificial flavors and sweeteners to try to imitate the original. It is better to purchase the full-fat food product.
  • Flavors and Spices. Be suspicious of a food item that uses this blanket term. It should list out the specific spice or flavor.

3. Learn how ingredient fraud works.

Consumers often check the first 3 ingredients to judge a food item since these compose of the bulk of the food. Companies know consumers do this, and distribute substances they know you don’t want by substituting some or all of these components with similar substances. These “bad” items are now distributed so they are not present in large enough quantities to qualify for a top position on the ingredient list. This is common tactic with sugar and wheat.

Looking for sugar?

Manufacturers will mix up different types of sugars, such as corn syrup solids, high-fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, molasses, date crystals, maple syrup, malt syrup, caramel, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, evaporated cane juice,  fruit juice concentrate, barley malt, sorbitol, maltol, manitol, honey,  lactose, maltose,  and many more. This ploy shifts sugar farther down the ingredients list and makes it appear that sugar is a small part of the overall product when it is not. So, if you are looking for the word “sugar” in the first few ingredients you won’t notice these unless 1) you know all the terms for sugar and 2) you read the entire ingredient list. If the ingredient list is exceedingly long for (more than 12 items) for what seems a simple product (i.e. bread) it is likely the manufacturer is using this hike-and-seek tactic.

4. Misleading Food Titles

The title of the food is no guarantee of what is inside. For instance, a packet of guacamole dip sounds like it must contain dried avocado, but in reality, no avocado is present on the ingredient list. Instead, the packet lists hydrogenated soybean solids, flavor enhancers, and green food coloring. Why? Foods that contain mostly fat, such as avocado, cannot be successfully dried. The title “Artificial Avocado Dip” may be more appropriate, but who wants to buy that?

Another example is vegetable powder. You may expect ground dehydrated vegetables, but instead find corn syrup solids (HFCS) and autolyzed yeast extract (MSG) as the primary ingredients. The title “Corn Sugar & MSG” might be more appropriate.

Salsa mix sounds delicious and convenient until you read the main ingredient is neither a vegetable nor herb, but maltodextrin (sugar).

Read and understand the ingredients and decide what is best for you. It is not by accident that the ingredient list is printed in microscopic print on the back of most products.

5. Ignore Marketing Claims.

Many packaged foods lie! The words prominently printed on the front are to ENTICE consumers. The objective of the label on packaged food is to sell the product rather than tell you the list of ingredients. Words that claim great taste, or market “Wholesome”, “All natural”, “No artificial…”, “Residue free”, “Naturally Grown”, “Hormone free”, “Healthy source of …, “Nutritious”, and so on. All these statements are loosely enforced (if at all) by the FDA/USDA, so companies do take advantage of this right.

For example, bread marketed as “made with wheat flour” or “multigrain” is often made with white-flour “enriched” bread. The crust may contain a sprinkle of oats or seeds to look healthy. The bread may also be colored brown (by adding browning agents, molasses, brown sugar, or high fructose corn syrup) to appear more nutritious.  Most consumers judge the healthiness of a food by its color, and “brown” is perceived as healthier.

6. Ignore Pictures.

Be suspicious when you see a picture on the front of the food package with the agrarian landscape, dotted with happy farm animals. This scene eludes that we are holding a product delicately produced in a gentle land of green pastures and peace; not a massive factory filled with noise and machinery gulping, churning, spewing, chugging and stamping product by the thousand. The product may boast that it is carefully produced in “small” batches or even handled or mixed by non-robotic arms to clear your mind of giant factories. If you are buying this product in a big box chain store, do you think that is really possible?  Consider carefully by reading the ingredients.

7. Identify Whole Grains

Products that may contain whole grains include breads, cereal, crackers, and pasta.  To find what is actually a whole grain, look for the word “whole”.  A product marketed as multi-grain or wheat is not whole unless the word “whole” appears in the ingredient list.  Whether the grain is wheat, oats, rye, brown rice, the word “whole” should be included as the first or second ingredient.  Food labeled “wheat flour” is not whole grain unless it is labeled “whole grain wheat flour.”   See also tips to identify whole grains from the whole grains council.

Whole grain pasta and bread are not only nutritionally superior to enriched or white flour counterparts, but have more robust flavor. Whole grain pasta made without gluten, such as brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat, are particularly tasty.

8. Organic Ingredients.

Consider that the chemical contaminants used in growing plant and animals as food,such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, growth enhancers, hormones and antibiotics are not disclosed on ingredient lists. If you want to ingest clean ingredients, look for organic or minimally processed.  Organic products can not use harmful synthetic chemical additives. Learn what foods are most important to purchase organically.

Purchasing organic products protects more than yourself. It helps protect wildlife and the environment it depends on from chemical contamination.

Next time you pick up a packaged food item, take a look at the label and then read the ingredient list. Is the label telling you the truth?

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