IT SOUNDS SO LAME. Reading labels in the grocery store. Who has the time? From the moment you lift the rascals into that race car shopping cart you’ve got about 10 minutes to whiz through the store before it gets ugly. You know time’s up as you question whether you REALLY need deodorant when it’s all the way on the other side of the store. When tiny arms start raking boxes of pudding mix as you shuffle down the aisle. Or your five-year-old nearly takes out an entire Cheese-Its display with the store’s own miniature
deathtrap cart. And what for? We KNOW what’s in food because there’s a handy label on the front that TELLS us. At least that’s what I thought.
Reading labels came to me slowly. Over time I heard enough smart people (Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Lisa Leake over at 100 Days of Real Food to name only a few) talking about it that I finally, reluctantly took a look.
What I found wasn’t great. I’m not a nutritionist and you don’t need to be either to simply understand the basics of what’s good to eat and what’s probably not. So here’s the takeaway: Most packaged goods have tons of sugar added, either in the form of corn syrup or good old sugar itself. There’s also the matter of extra oil, preservatives and sometimes wood pulp. More on this in a moment.
Also, I’m not even talking about mixes or pre-made meals here; I was surprised to find a lot of unexpected things inside regular grocery staples. Take sugar, for example. I don’t mind sweets as treats but I certainly don’t want to load the kids up on the sweet stuff when I’m giving them a sandwich…which leads to numbers 1, 2 and 3 on this list.
- PEANUT BUTTER. Sugar and palm oil. Those are ingredients in many popular brands of peanut butter. Now I buy the store brand that usually says “natural” but don’t be fooled by that alone. Look at the ingredients. Mine says “Peanuts, salt.” You stir it, then keep the jar in the fridge and here’s a great tip I found online: Store unopened jars upside down and it’ll start mixing itself already.
- JAM. Anyone who’s ever made jam knows it’s full of sugar. By definition. But I have two new rules: I only buy fruit spread OR jam made from organic berries. Strawberries are always on the “Dirty Dozen” list because they’re typically doused in so many chemicals to keep the fruit bug free. We love the Kirkland organic strawberry jam from Costco on toast and it’s great in baked goods too.
- BREAD. This one surprised me. I thought you couldn’t go wrong with whole wheat bread. But it turns out, LOTS of bread is really just a lot of carbs without much nutritional value. Read the label to find out how many grams of sugar each slice has and how much fiber. I like the store brand at Kroger “Private Selection”, which doesn’t include sugar. They use raisin juice (I don’t know how they chose it but so be it.) Another favorite is Dave’s Bread, and I get 2 loaves at a time from Costco. This is thick slabs of serious bread made with non-GMO ingredients and brimming with all sorts of omega-rich nuts and seeds.
- “TABLE SYRUP”. It’s MOSTLY corn syrup. Only buy 100% maple syrup. Especially if you’re using it to bake low-sugar muffins, quick breads, or drizzled on top of oatmeal and yogurt (more on that below.)
- CRACKERS. The mother of all processed foods. I know of only one kind of cracker that includes all real food ingredients, Triscuits. They’re made from wheat and salt. There are a bunch of flavored varieties now, and my husband likes the garlic. The kids are purists though, and just get plain.
- CHICKEN. Every time I looked at chicken in the store I kept noticing the added liquids mentioned on the labels: mostly broth and water. There’s also the matter of hormones and antibiotics. Now I only buy the brands that say “never any antibiotics” and “no hormones”. It costs more so I usually stock up on sale and freeze it. Eventually I’d like to get a local source where we can just buy whole or cut up chickens from farmers in our area. (I’d need to sleep at night in order to take on that project, so this is fine for now.)
- CEREAL. I can always tell when my kids have had cereal for breakfast because they have a giant meltdown about 20 minutes later. Even our “low sugar” cereal didn’t seem to have enough protein to keep them going. Now we get Cascadian Farm Organic cereals and add a bunch of stuff: flaxseed, chia seeds, low-sugar cranberries, raisins, walnuts, slivered almonds… Anything to make that little bowl more hearty.
- LUNCH MEAT. Nitrate-free, without coloring added. That’s what I look for and Hormel makes a bunch of affordable ham and turkey selections.
- EGGS. Just free-range, hormone-free eggs for us. Even those eggs, which admittedly cost more, are still a cheaper source of protein than regular meat.
- INSTANT OATMEAL PACKETS. I used to eat this all the time when I was single in New York City. Mostly sugar, very little of anything else. It’s much cheaper and just as easy to get Old Fashioned Oats, which still cook in the microwave but are heartier with more fiber and zero sugar.
- MAYONNAISE. I didn’t realize there was sugar in mayo until I saw a jar of Duke’s that said “sugar-free”. Then I flipped around those other jars on the shelf and to my surprise, there it was in the ingredients list. Sugar.
- SHREDDED CHEESE. In order to keep shredded or cubed cheese separated in the package without getting clumpy, some companies use cellulose to coat each tiny piece. Cellulose can include wood particles. Just buy your own chunk of cheese instead.
- DRIED FRUIT. We LOVE dried cranberries around here. But when I realized how much sugar goes into your average bag, I stopped buying them. Now, the good people at Ocean Spray have come out with a version with half as much sugar and we stock up every time it’s on sale. Some dried fruit doesn’t have added sugar (raisins, apricots) but cherries and pineapple are typically massively sweetened so just take a peek.
- BEEF. I buy a lot less meat than you might think for a family of six. These days I like meat almost as a garnish, or at least as part of an entree instead of BEING the entree. The kids love beef and I actually have no problem with the fat content, but it’s the price of good beef that stops me. We look for sales on grass-fed beef and stock up.
- FLAVORED YOGURT. When I was pregnant with our fourth baby this summer, I ate tons of Greek yogurt with fruit at the bottom. I knew it was sugary but thought it was still pretty healthy, until I went in for an appointment and they checked my blood sugar. “Are you diabetic?” They asked me? “Uh, no,” I stammered. “Just ate some yogurt for breakfast.” They tested my sugar again on the next visit, when I hadn’t scarfed down a bowl of the sweet stuff, and it was totally normal. Now I eat the plain yogurt I serve the kids. If we want a bit more flavor, there’s honey, syrup or fruit to put on top. Or we go half and half with vanilla yogurt.
That’s the list, though I’m sure I’m leaving things out. What do you think, what did I miss?
Anyway, the idea isn’t to limit ourselves; it’s really about choosing the good stuff. It might also be about going to the store alone.
P.S. If you’d like to laugh until you cry, please read about this trip to Target from Momastery.