You’re normally a health-conscious person — no canned soup or frozen meals for you. But looking for food around campus today, you’re in an unusual mood. Thoughts of tender macaroni and creamy cheese have been eating at you all day, and nothing is going to get between you and a sinfully delicious Kraft dinner. But wait! There’s another box beside it on the shelf: Annie’s Homegrown Shells & White Cheddar. The purple box boasts no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or hormones. Relieved of any previous guilt, you buy the slightly more expensive alternative without a second thought.
If you’d looked at the purple box’s nutrition facts, however, you would have noticed something interesting: levels of salt, fat, and calorie content are very similar to the Kraft version. Is Annie’s product really a healthier choice? The answer lies in the ingredients. The Kraft mac and cheese includes very similar ingredients to the Annie’s product, like whey and milk, salt. Yet the Kraft ingredients list is nearly twice as long as Annie’s, and many of the ingredients are complex compounds that an average student wouldn’t recognize without some serious help from Wikipedia.
With the complicated ingredients in processed foods these days, it’s hard to pick out things that are harmless from those that are harmful. RIT’s Registered Dietician, Mary Anne MacQuay, gives some suggestions for picking out healthy food. “Look at the list of ingredients. What’s the first ingredient?” Ingredients are listed in descending amount of the ingredient in the product, by volume; if sugar comes first, it means most of what you’re eating is comprised of mostly sugar.
The ingredients list is a powerful tool for consumers, since the manufacturer must list every single item in the product — information they are not required to reveal anywhere else on the label. Further reading of the ingredients in the beloved chocolately spread reveals palm oil as the second ingredient. This is even more alarming than sugar, since USDA research on heavily saturated fats (palm oil in particular) revealed dangers to heart health comparable to that of much-feared trans-fats.
If you can’t easily identify the individual ingredients in the product, you can simply look at the overall length of the ingredients list or the claims made by the packaging. MacQuay explains, “A long list of ingredients for a product usually means that there’s a lot of processed foods, or there’s some ingredient in that food that’s not as healthy as it should be.” To emphasize this point, she produced a bag of Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice Whole Grain Brown; “The brown rice variety really just has water, rice and oil. But if you were to look at some of the other varieties in this line, the list of ingredients is much longer and there are a lot more chemicals and additives in the product.” That particular variety also boasted that the product was heart-healthy, something other products in the line can’t claim, due to their radically different contents. That’s because the FDA regulates what a company can and cannot claim on their products, so this is a reliable method of determining certain healthy qualities of the foods you eat.
Of course, some products that are allowed to make those claims might not actually contain any healthy ingredients. Take Annie’s Berry Patch Bunny Fruit Snacks, for example. The package proudly proclaims that it is organic, and displays a USDA seal of approval to prove it. As pointed out by MacQuay, however, organic production doesn’t make a product instantly healthy; “There’s not a lot of research that proves that organic is, necessarily, better.” The ingredients in the fruit snacks confirm this; the first two ingredients in the fruit snacks are organic tapioca syrup and organic cane sugar. Furthermore, infamous “natural flavors” are included on the list, which could be literally any plant or animal byproduct. Most notably of all, a product does not need to be 100 percent organic to earn that USDA seal; so long as a certain proportion of the final product is organic, the claim can legally be made. This is especially true for the fruit snacks, which also contain non-organic pectin, citric acid, ascorbic acid, sodium citrate and carnauba wax. Though all of those ingredients are harmless additives found in many processed foods, they are no different from their non-organic counterparts.
The ingredients list may be the most tedious part of the packaging, but it contains the most information about a product. Reading (and researching) the ingredients in addition to the nutrition facts and claims listed on the foods you eat will get you well on your way to making healthy food choices.