If you’re used to judging how healthy a food is simply by reading its nutrition label you may be surprised by what you find. Some highly processed breads and cereals, for example, appear to be healthy for you because they have lots of vitamins and minerals. As an example, let’s compare the nutrition label of Lucky Charms–a highly processed and synthetically enhanced cereal–to the label of a much less processed breakfast food, such as Bob’s Steel Cut Oats. Look at the images below–which looks more impressive?
Naturally,you may say to yourself, “the Lucky Charms are healthier and taste better, so it’s a no brainer—I’m buying them!” Right?
Not really. Highly processed foods aren’t always as impressive as the label may suggest–especially when compared to whole foods. “Processing destroys nutrients, and the more processing there is, the more destruction you get,” says Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Lucky Charms and its counterpart cereals (Fruit Pebbles, Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch…you know, all the ones your kids love) are fortified, which means that micro-nutrients are synthetically added. “Fortification adds back some nutrients, so overall you’re better off with a processed fortified food than a processed unfortified one. But a whole food is always going to be superior.” (I highly recommend you read this Wall Street Journal Article on fortified foods.)
Naturally occurring nutrients are always better for us than the synthetic version. They are better absorbed by our bodies, they include a whole variety of micronutrients that are not reflected on the nutrition label, and they will tend to have more protein and fiber. Just as food companies have never been able to re-create breast milk with sythentic formulas, so, too, can we not create fake foods that are as beneficial as the real thing.
So, next time you are comparing products side-by-side, take a look at the whole picture. If you don’t want to be fooled by the packaging, be sure to read the ingredients label along with the nutrition facts label, and consider the following:
- Does the ingredients list include colors, letters, and numbers? These are a sign that the product contains artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, monosodium glutamate, and other synthentic substances, that are designed by food companies to make us enjoy and crave their foods, but have questionable effects on our health, and certainly tend us toward obesity. If you want a more complete list, take a look at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives“–the list includes ingredients that have been associated with serious health concerns. Print it out for your next shopping trip.
- What is the fiber and protein content? Whole grains will always have more fiber and protein than processed versions. In addition to being essential for body function, these nutrients are heart, gut, and brain-friendly, are filling, and stabilize our blood sugar–which means, less mood swings and less cravings. Ideally, you want products that contain at least 3g of fiber and protein (each), per serving.
- Do the words “fortified” or “enriched” appear in the ingredients list? Then you know the food is so processed, that the food company is trying to sell you a nutritionally empty food by adding in synthetic nutrients.
- Do you see the word “whole” next to the grains listed in the ingredients list? Whole grains are better than refined ones because they provide lasting energy and stabilize blood sugar. Ideally, you want to see “whole [name of grain]” or “brown rice” when you read the label. If the label says “wheat” or “multigrain,” some parts of the grain may be missing. “100% whole [grain]” is the best. Check out this handy chart for determining whether the grains in the product are really whole or processed.
- Are there hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the ingredients? HFSC is an unhealthy sugar that causes weight gain and has little nutritional value. Check the ingredients label for high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar and sucrose, and try to limit the serving amount of sugars to 6g per serving on the nutrition label. Hydrogenated oils are trans fats that clog our arteries and can raise our risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Check the ingredients list for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated.”
Going back to our Lucky Charms vs. Steel Cut Oats comparison, we can used this checklist to draw the following conclusions for why the Oats are a better choice: They have more than twice the amount of fiber and over three times the amount of protein per serving. They are made of whole, unprocessed grains. Lucky Charms may have some whole grains in them, but they are full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, and probably all of the micronutrients are synthetically added. Bob’s has 10% Daily Value of iron and 2% of calcium, naturally. These numbers may seem low, but in the whole, original form, nutrients are better absorbed and produce a better effect in our bodies than do the fake ones.
This may seem like a long check list, but after some time it will become second nature. You will find that ten seconds is enough to scan both the nutrition and ingredients labels to make a good choice for you and your family.