Countdown to New Year’s: No-Resolutions Resolution Week 5

We're in the home stretch of our No-Resolutions Resolution plan. Here are our tips for how to shop for the best and healthiest packaged foods.
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200464106-001

Young man in supermarket comparing bottles of oil, rear view, close-up

©(c) Noel Hendrickson

(c) Noel Hendrickson

We're in the home stretch of our No-Resolutions Resolution plan. Have you followed our tips for smart snacking? Found a way to keep your exercise goals in check? Keep up the good work! This week, we're tackling the grocery store. What to pick up and what to leave on the shelf!

It's virtually impossible not to have some packaged goods in your household. Canned beans, pastas, frozen veggies, grains and spreads are all processed to some degree, but some varieties are better than others. Then there are others that are plain ol' no good. So how do you separate the good stuff from the bad?

If you shop in a store like Whole Foods, or other natural stores, they are pretty much doing the work for you. In order for a product to land on the shelves at Whole Foods, the ingredients cannot include hydrogenated fats or artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners or preservatives. That means that no products in Whole Foods, and similar stores that follow the same credo, have high-fructose corn syrups or nitrates or many of the words that are hard to pronounce. Check the store's website to find out what qualifies to be sold on their shelves.

Avoid Highly Processed Foods

Keep in mind that the key is that processed foods have been altered in some way from their natural state. You're even processing food just by cooking it. Some processes are needed to make a product safe for consumption. For instance, milk has been pasteurized, which kills harmful bacteria, whereas deli meats that contain nitrates, shown to increase cancer risks, should be avoided.

Read Labels

When shopping, be sure to read the entire package carefully. Highly processed foods will contain more sugar, fat and salt, all of which can lead to weight gain and, if they appear consistently in your diet, serious health complications. Even if a label looks safe, because it's labeled "natural" or "organic,"  take a look at the back to determine whether the claims are true. If it has additional sugars, that only adds empty calories in your diet. Watch the fat content too. Trans fats are often added to foods to change their texture, giving them more body. The end result, however, is that they raise our bad cholesterol levels. If the label includes partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, know that it contains trans fats and find the version that does not.

Watch the Sodium

In addition to sugar and fat, take a look at the sodium content of items like frozen foods, sauces and soups, which can have nearly 1,000 milligrams per serving. Sodium is naturally present in some foods, but generally it is added to help bind ingredients and improve taste, and as a preservative to extend the shelf life. A diet high in sodium is a big risk, especially for those with high blood pressure, as it can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Cut the Carbs

Additional carbohydrates may find their way into your diet if you’re not choosing unrefined grains. "We want people to eat whole grains, not quickly digestible carbs like cookies, cake, candy and anything with added sugars," says Lisa Sasson, clinical associate professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. "Pick whole-grain rice and all those whole-grain cereals. Make sure most of the carbs you are getting are whole-grain."

DIY

We don't expect you to churn your own butter or necessarily jar your own jam, but whenever possible, make the homemade version. Skip the canned soup and make one of these versions and freeze some for a snowy day. If you can't make something from scratch, shop for the brand that offers the closest form to the food’s natural state. "In general, make sure you are buying less foods with labels," recommends Sasson.

Next Week: Ringing in 2015!

Kiri Tannenbaum is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Paris and holds an M.A. in food studies from New York University where she is currently an adjunct professor. When her schedule allows, she leads culinary walking tours in New York City and is currently at work on her first book.

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