Baby Steps to Eating Safe
Hopefully you aren't here because you're experiencing the pain that I have. Hopefully you aren't here because you need a big bang approach to life change, because it's tough! But there are four steps you can take to improve your eating and your health, slowly swapping in healthier alternatives as you discover them.
- Each time you visit the grocery store, check the labels in a new section. Read the ingredient list - check the labels. For example, this trip, start with dairy products. If you buy sour cream, check the labels. Look for the one that doesn't contain excessive additives (hint: Daisy does it well). Look at half and half or heavy cream ingredients. You'll quickly discover very few products are just cream or milk (hint: go Deans!). Start learning which foods are top offenders (like soup or creamy sauces), and mark down the brands and items you find that are safe. You can't just go by brand, you HAVE to read the labels! Even if you buy a mild vs a medium sales from the same manufacturer, one may be safe and another not. Take the time to read.
Start reading labels in one section of the grocery store.
- The next time you go out to eat, check the reviews of other local restaurants. Look for the mom and pop shops that make real food. Go there, ask questions when you order, and look for the safest food you can find. Find passionate restaurant owners and chefs who understand the value of real ingredients. They are out there. Build a new list of favorite places! It's fun. Most restaurant owners I've spoken with have no idea what I'm talking about as it relates to this topic, but asking about how something is made can really help. A few examples : Are the fries frozen or fresh cut? Do you use butter, oil, or shortening to make the hash browns? Also, if you are ordering from a chain restaurant, check their website first. I have called or checked out most local pizza chains. I can eat one national chain's cheese pizza with mushrooms and spinach, but ordering the banana peppers is a violation (who'd have thought that?). Do your research, you'll be glad you did, and you'll learn a lot about the things you've been eating.
Find a new favorite restaurant.
- Organic labels mean little. You can have organic products with natural flavors and Carageenan, because they are naturally derived. And some of the allowed sprays in organic farms is now thought to be worse than the regularly farm pesticides. Shop carefully.
Start shopping organic carefully.
- This is a big issue, with more to come as it gains more visibility. Genetically, a majority of our food has been modified. Finding plain old corn or wheat is tougher than ever. Thank goodness some items, like a Honey Crisp apple, came about through natural methods and not genetic modifications. There is a difference - do some research! Your food is not normal anymore. I am convinced that there is something that we will find one day tying gluten intolerance to genetic modification of our food. I'm also convinced at some point we'll prove the tie between our food and autism, but that's another topic altogether. Also, if your children have a lot of allergies, like to peanuts, look into genetically modified soy as a key contributor to that problem. It's out there. Read up!
Start shopping non-GMO.
With all that's in our food supply now, what actually is a "safe" food? The FDA approves these items for consumption, so they must be OK, right? (As an aside, take a look at who heads up the FDA - still trust them?) It can be overwhelming to look at the foods you are eating today and see how you'll be eating tomorrow, because almost everything in your fridge, freezer, and cabinets has these additives. But there are a few general guidelines you can follow to get started, and many product lines that I've found to be safer than others.
Eating organic is better, but it's not enough. Eating "natural" is definitely not enough. Shopping at healthier stores isn't necessarily the answer. You can find good cheap foods and bad foods from a healthy-focus grocery store.
- Avoid long ingredient lists. If the label exceeds 5 ingredients, back away. More than 3 ingredients is typically a negative sign but I've found exceptions, particularly if there are a lot of spices listed.
- Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Fresh meats, dairy, fresh baked goods, produce. There are still exceptions (watch bakery items especially), but it's a good generic way to focus on fresher foods.
- Avoid foods that have coupons. I hate to say this, because I love to save a buck. But typically, if a company has to convince you to buy their food, it means it's been messed with or can be somehow differentiated from other foods. When was the last time you saw a coupon for broccoli or a ribeye?
- Don't trust a store til you know them. I'm not saying you should be invited for dinner by the produce manager, but ask the questions you need to ask until you get the right answers. Otherwise don't shop there. Bakeries, dairies, delis, and frozen sections are simultaneously capable of containing the best and worst products. Shopping a higher end or natural foods store does not mean you are in the clear!
- Some foods are just problematic and need to be avoided. Some foods are just naturally problematic. Soy sauce, broths and stocks, syrups, sodas, pudding, gelatin, gravy - it's very difficult to find anything edible in these categories. So, that means you need to watch soups, Asian foods, beers...
Some Helpful Guidelines
- Let's start with potato chips.
Take a look at a bag of Lays, Jays, or other basic potato chips. What do you see? Three ingredients - potatoes, oil, salt. Now grab a bag of the same brand of chips, but BBQ, Dill, Cheese, or other flavor. What do you see? How long is that list of ingredients now? I will forever miss Doritos, but the list of offending ingredients is truly amazing. Extend this same thought to crackers - same deal. Pick up a box of traditional Triscuits. Three ingredients. Now grab a flavored box of Triscuits. Raise an eyebrow. I've found more and more small companies in the snack space that are trying to differentiate their products, and their ingredients lists can be very extensive for even basic items.
Oh, do breads vary. I can stand in a grocery store bakery and find breads with 4 ingredients, and breads with 15. Find the brands or grocery bakeries that work for you. Same with shelf breads, all of which become less desirable after you find a good bakery bread. The fewer dough conditioners and fewer ingredients, the better. They are out there, sometimes found pre-packaged in the bakery area. Beware though - being in the bakery section doesn't make it better. Sometimes they are loaded with junk too. Consider Healthy Life breads or similar.
- Sour Cream.
Grab a container of Daisy sour cream. Then pick up most others. Spot the difference very quickly? Now, just for kicks pick up a container of Sour Cream and Onion Dip. Fall down in shock.
- Salad Dressings.
I have a hard time with this one. I want to eat salads to be healthy, but the dressings are so often scary. One of the most popular flavors is Ranch. Most ranch dressings are full of stuff I won't touch. Look for yogurt-based ranch though, vinaigrettes, or the like. Refrigerated versions often help.
Try to find a yogurt that's really natural. It's going to take you a while, so I'll save you a few minutes - plain, honey, and occasionally vanilla are typically not made of chemicals and corn syrup - they almost ALL contain natural flavors and/or Carageenan. Chobani or Fage Honey Greek Yogurt are my safe favorites.
- Ice Cream.
We've been making it ourselves - if you have a KitchenAid mixer, you can make some wonderful ice cream with the attachment! I was also turned on to Blue Bunny "Natural Vanilla" and wow, it's real (and real good)! I noticed right next to it on the shelf was the "Homestyle Vanilla", and the ingredient list was night and day. Almost all ice cream is heavily infused with chemicals for texture and flavor.
- Pancakes and Waffles.
Mixes? Just don't do it. Huge offenders live here. Frozen? Same. These are not hard to make - find some great recipes online (and on this site), make them in bulk weekly, and store them in the freezer for quick, hearty breakfasts. Don't forget to top them with REAL maple syrup - avoid the corn syrup look alikes. We use steel cut oats for extra fiber, flavor, and health.
This gets interesting quickly. DO buy 100% juices, but I've actually seen small containers of juice that say they are 100% juice WITH NATURAL FLAVORS ADDED. What? I think our version of 100% differs! Only buy what is pure and simple. Cocktails and additives are not welcome. And please - don't let your kids drink it all day from their sippy cups. It's far too much sugar if not watered down.
- Other Beverages.
Coffee? Buy it unflavored. Tea? Just look at the labels - there are very good flavors without chemicals, but not often. Soda? I have given it up completely. You're going to read a lot of labels and be let down by them all - the loss of Mountain Dew was a sad day, but seriously, just check the ingredient list and be amazed. Energy drinks? Don't bother - they are loaded with offenders. And how about those water additives to give you a burst of flavor? No kidding, I read on one "natural flavor with other natural flavors". What on earth are you ingesting in that case? Don't walk, RUN from that aisle.
- Frozen Pizza.
Believe it or not, a basic pizza can be OK. Home Run Inn cheese or DiGiornio cheese are pretty safe. Extra flavors, special versions, or toppings can make it unsafe very quickly. We have found that we can buy a good pizza and top it with fresh veggies and even sliced chicken for a quick meal.
Some Product Examples
So how can we eat out safely? This has been a huge challenge. We eat out for fun, for convenience and for new flavors. Restaurants are in business to make money. Margins are higher when cheaper ingredients are used. That leads to more food chemicals. Large restaurant chains are major offenders. Their food is consistent and tasty, but it's often heavily flavored with chemicals.
What do we do then? Look for the best local restaurants - typically mom and pop shops. We live in a time where we can gather feedback from residents, television, phone apps, and online - it's a lot easier to figure out a good restaurant while on the road.
Here are good ways to find the right restaurants
- Yelp - this is the easiest way to see what local residents think of the restaurants. It's online, but definitely get the app too.
- Trip Advisor - Similar to Yelp, this site is great for trips to touristy areas especially.
- Food Network - Show hosts visit and advertise for restaurants making real food from real ingredients. Visit the site, but grab the Food Network On the Road app too.
- Google - Use your favorite search engine to its full potential! Type the restaurant name and "MSG" into your browser. You'll find a ton of information out there, either direct from the restaurants or from people's past experiences. Case in point - if I look for safe wing sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings, the search turns up their nutrition information. It turns out there are two sauces that are safe, so order one of those. In other cases, restaurant reviews or FAQ's turn up results to quickly disqualify restaurants entirely, or at least certain entrees.