I get asked often, how to navigate the packaged and processed food world while trying to stick to a whole foods plant based way of living.
If you have followed me at all over the last decade, you know I DO NOT prescribe to the notion that there is any one way that we should all eat, and that "diets" are for the birds (and BS). HOWEVER, I do think that most of us can and should stick to food that is as close to nature as possible; and that means more vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds (and animal products if you choose) in their natural state - rather than ingredients that come in boxes or bags. After all, it wasn't that long ago that you couldn't even BUY food at the store; our not too distant ancestors farmed, and even practiced hunting and gathering in order to have food on the table.
At any rate, the convenience of the world we live in today has offered many gifts, like the gifts of choice, abundance and proximity. At the same time, processed food producers have locked into the new awareness that consumers have about the ingredients they are eating and they are cleverly putting words like "natural" on the front of their packages in hopes of appealing to conscious shoppers.
Foods that are "fat free", "sugar free", and "low-calorie" still line the aisles at supermarket, even as we've learned full-stop, that these types of processed franken-foods just use chemicals and synthetic ingredients to make up for the loss of delicious fat and sweetness. Just don't buy these!
If you do buy processed/packaged foods, I simply suggest that you read the ingredients list. This is the best place to really get a good idea about what's inside, and you can make your decision armed with real knowing. If the list contains a bunch of things you can't pronounce or have never even heard of, maybe steer clear. If you can identify most, and they are ingredients you might individually stock in your pantry, maybe have at it! You can even google the one's you are unsure of, and use it as a learning opportunity too.
Listen, I know that it's often easier to grab a frozen pizza or can of beans than to whip those up from scratch. I am a working mom of a toddler after all! I also know that when I fuel myself and my family with mostly whole foods, we all feel better.
Here, I decode some of the other labels you might see, so you can be a more savvy shopper, for when you need to buy the box, bag, or can:
Natural - doesn't mean SHIT. Mercury is "natural". Manure is "natural". Foods labelled as such are just trying to look for healthy than they are. That's not to say that the ingredients are all bad - this is just an instance where you need to check out the list and decide for yourself.
Organic - Go for it. We could get into the "dark side" of organics but for the purposes of this post, I say if it says it's organic, go for it. Keep in mind that a food that is made up of organic sugar, oil, and other processed or low nutrient ingredients, is not really any healthier than the conventional version of the same thing, so be mindful!
TIP #1 : Organic produce usually has a five digit code starting with 9 (ie. 4011). Conventional have a four digit code starting with 3 or 4 (ie. 94129)
TIP #2: Check out the Environmental Working Groups annual roundup of the most pesticide laden produce here and shop organic for those when possible!
Nonirradiated - You can guess what this means; the food has not been exposed to radiation. No thorough testing has been done to know if irradiated food is safe for human consumption.
Fair Trade - This is an important one when buying products form other developing countries especially. It means that the farmers and workers have received fair wages and worked in acceptable conditions while growing and packaging
Free Range - This term is only defined by the USDA for egg and poultry production and can be used so long as the producers allow the birds access to the outdoors so they can engage in natural behaviors. It does NOT necessarily mean that the products are cruelty-free or antibiotic-free or that the animals spent the majority of their time outdoors.
GMO-free - GMOs or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses, or other plants and animals. We don't want to eat those.<