Even when we are doing our best to make smart choices when food shopping, it is difficult to resist well-designed packaging, clever advertising and nutritious-sounding product descriptions. As we know, packaged food is a huge business and the food industry has become expert at convincing us to buy expensive and attractive items which appear healthy.
Always take a moment to read the ingredient list before you purchase anything in a package. Whether it is hidden sugar, toxic oils such as soybean and canola oil, or high levels of sodium or refined carbohydrates, beware of the following popular foods, and check out our suggestions for healthier alternatives—either purchased or homemade.
Store-bought salad dressings seem convenient but are usually loaded with sodium and sugar to make them taste good (especially the low-fat ones). Although brands may claim that they are made with olive oil, olive oil, often, is just one of the oils on the ingredient list and may constitute only a small percentage of the dressing, with the cheaper and and more inflammatory sunflower, safflower, canola or soybean oil making up the bulk of the bottle.
Healthy Swap: If you’re going to buy a dressing, try Tessa Mae’s 100% olive oil dressings with gluten free options and no refined sugars. Or, save your cash and whip up your own salad dressing with balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar combined with extra-virgin olive oil in a 3:1 ratio. Add minced garlic or shallot, fresh herbs, or mustard for a delicious flavor.
Vegetable Chips and Crisps
Whether they are made with organic corn, snap peas, root vegetables or are shaped as triangles, chips, or straws, crunchy vegetable snacks are not as healthy as they seem. Just as a fruit rollup or fruit leather is not the same as real fruit, veggie chips and crisps are not the same as eating your vegetables, as much as the ads may try to convince you otherwise. The first ingredient is typically potato or rice flour followed by corn starch and vegetable oil. Most vegetable chips offer few nutritional benefits other than the carbohydrate content and the fat from cheap vegetable oils.
Healthy Swap: If you’re craving something salty and crunchy, try toasted nori — SeaSnax brand is delicious and one of the few brands that uses olive oil. Another option is to bake your kale chips, which are quick and easy or purchase packaged kale chips such as Brad’s.
Just when you think you have finally discovered a protein bar that actually tastes good, your joy turns to dismay when you read the fine print and the long list of questionable ingredients, (such as soy protein isolate, various sweeteners and fillers and other undesirables). Most protein bars contain 15 – 25 grams of sugar! Catering to the athlete market or for sale in gyms, the high protein content of these bars comes with a price — high sugar and suspect ingredients.
Healthy Swap: Packaged raw nuts are always a safe bet when you need a hit of protein or a snack to tide you over but there are a few options in the healthy protein bar category. I like Raw Crunch bars and the low sugar line of KIND bars.
Commercial brands of hummus almost always use cheap, unhealthy oils such as soybean and canola rather than olive oil, making their hummus more inflammatory than the hummus that you can make at home. Additionally, the added toppings (roasted peppers and pine nuts, etc.) increase the oil and sodium content so watch out for those extras.
Healthy Swap: New Jersey-based Abraham’s Middle Eastern Foods makes authentic and delicious hummus without canola or other filler oils—just chickpeas and tahini. Their products are available in the tri-state area and Massachusetts. Look for a similar local manufacturer in your area or blend up a batch of hummus at home with a can of chickpeas (drained), juice from one lemon, a clove or two of garlic and a dash of olive oil or water. Add salt and pepper to taste and blend in your mini chopper, food processor or blender.
As one of the most common food allergens, it is wise to be careful with peanuts and make sure that you (or the people around you) don’t have an allergy or sensitivity. Peanuts also have high levels of omega 6 fatty acids (which are already in inflammation-raising abundance in our diets) and almost no inflammation fighting omega 3 fatty acids. Finally, peanuts are susceptible to growing a mold called aflatoxin, which is a known carcinogen and can be toxic to the liver; aflatoxin mold is endemic to the peanut processing system and for those with mold sensitivities, peanuts can create inflammation or immune responses.
Healthy Swap: There are plenty of nut butters to choose from: almond, cashew, hazelnut and the seed butter known as “sunbutter.” Although almonds also contain mainly omega 6 fats, they have a greater ratio of monounsaturated fats (as in olive oil or avocados) to polyunsaturated fats (as in vegetable oil) than peanuts. Whichever nut butter or seed butter you choose, be sure to buy the unsweetened version, as you don’t need the added sugar and nut butters taste great without it. I like the highly portable Justin’s squeeze packs for on-the-go snacks.