Choosing the Right Packaged Foods (If You Must)

By Jonathan Wright, Linda Larsen

You’ve heard of the food chain that has algae and amoeba at the bottom and lions and tigers at the top, but you may not know about the other food chain — that is, the processed food chain. In this food chain, foods in their natural state, like apples, greens, berries, and whole grains, are at the bottom, and processed foods, like sugary snack cakes and fast-food burgers, are at the top.

If you eat low on the food chain, you’ll automatically eat a clean diet. So think about food in its natural state before you buy it. A gelatin fruit salad packed in a little plastic cup with chunks of peaches floating in it is very different from a fresh peach picked right off the tree.

If you’re still buying foods with a label, use the following rules to help guide your choices:

  • Read the labels. If a product like whole-wheat bread contains more than five or seven ingredients, put it back on the shelf. You don’t have to stick to a certain ingredient count; just make sure that the number of ingredients is about what you would use if you made the food from scratch.
  • If you can’t pronounce, spell, or understand ingredients on the food label, don’t buy that particular product. Your body doesn’t need artificial flavors or chemicals made in the lab. Even chemicals the FDA regards as safe may be problematic in the future.
  • Avoid foods that have sugars, processed ingredients, or fat as the first or second ingredient on the label. These foods are made up of empty calories that don’t provide much nutrition.
  • Choose foods that are low on the food chain. In other words, choose foods that are as close as possible to their natural state. Pick up a head of cabbage rather than a jar of coleslaw. Choose a bag of apples rather than a bottle of sweetened applesauce. If you do so consistently, you’ll be well on your way to eating clean.

When you follow these simple rules, you may notice that a lot of the foods you’re used to buying are no longer on your grocery list. This switch in what you buy can take some time, but don’t stress! You can ease into the process. Becoming aware of what you put in your shopping cart and bring into your house is the first, and most important, step.