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5 Things to Check for When Buying "Health Food"

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

Man Shopping

The real food movement is in full force, which on many levels is a good thing.   But like any trend in eating, there are unintended consequences that are bound to happen.

For example, many products boast using natural ingredients devoid of artificial dyes, high fructose corn syrup and certain preservatives as the selling point.  And while that information is still important, it doesn’t automatically mean that food product is better nutritionally than others.  This is why I use the same watchful eye with ANY product.

So here are 5 signs that what’s behind the illusion of the natural, unadulterated food, isn’t always all that.

  1. It’s Packed with Sodium: Most of the sodium in our diets come from packaged and processed food.  An item made under a health halo, still has to add preservatives like sodium, to keep the growth of bacteria at bay. In fact, the use of salt as a preservative has been used for centuries. How much salt is too much?  The World Health Organization just came out with recommendations to keep sodium under 2000mg.  So apply this to labels and how much you would be using.  If a product has 500mg and you are likely to have two times the serving amount, that’s quite a bit.
  2. It’s Loaded with Added Sugar: Products deemed as natural tend to use agave, organic sugar, evaporated cane juice and brown rice syrup as sweeteners instead of high fructose corn syrup.  But most experts agree that too much sugar, regardless of the type, is what really matters.Remember that a teaspoon of sugar is about 5 grams, so consider this when looking at products that would have added sugars.  Many products have natural sugars like milk, yogurt, tomato sauces and fruit-based items, so keep that in mind.  When looking at yogurt, for example, compare the plain versions with flavored to get an idea of the added sugars.
  3. It Uses Omega-6 Rich Oils: I always look at the type of fat used in food products and not just the grams of saturated and unsaturated fat.  When it comes to oils, I prefer items made with canola or olive oil because they tend to be lower in omega 6 fats. According to an NIH study, the food supply has seen a 1000-fold increase in soybean oil in the 20th century, which is high in omega-6 fats. Other sources of omega-6 include corn and sunflower oil.While not all experts agree, some believe the imbalance of modern diets with high omega-6 and low omega-3 fats, increase the risk of inflammation in the body (for more details see this post). A recent study in the British Medical Journal found that men who replaced saturated fat with high omega-6 fats, had increases risk of death from heart disease (17% vs. 11%).
  4. Organic as the Only Selling Point: When it comes to produce, choosing organic can result in less detectable pesticide residues  by about 30%.  But when it comes to other items, organic is not as telling.  We know organic milk and meat come from cows that did not receive hormones or antibiotics, get an organic feed and have access to pasture.  But this access to pasture does not mean they are grass fed.Research shows that milk, cheese and meat that comes from grass-fed cows have better fat and antioxidant profiles than those who don’t.  When it comes to nutrition of animal products, claims from the American Grass-Feed Association may be more telling.
  5. Absence Claims — Many animal products have the claim “no hormones added” but did you know poultry and pork aren’t allowed (by law) added hormones?  That’s why those products also have to add “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” And those nitrate free hot dogs you love?  They usually contain celery juice a natural source of nitrates.  And trans-fat free doesn’t tell you what other fats are used in the product.

Bottom line: All manufacturers of food products, natural and otherwise, have the same challenges.  They need to preserve their food, add sugar for flavor and have cost constraints around the type of fats and diets of animals. So look beyond the claim to figure out what the product is really about. You might be surprised.

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