Fit Food: Food Labels – What To Look For And What To Avoid In The Grocery Store

Since 1980, the average number of items a typical supermarket carries has ballooned from 15,000 to 50,000! So it’s understandable to be overwhelmed when you head to the grocery store. Not only have the choices tripled in the past 30 years, but rules have changed regarding what health claims companies can put on their products. You can’t trust the flashy advertising on the front of the package, as much as you’d like to believe that “whole grain” Corn Pops are good for you. Although the majority of the food you should be buying won’t even have ingredients lists or food labels at all, you should know how to read and interpret them.


When reading food ingredients, the fewer number of items the better. Stick to simple foods with less than five ingredients for the majority of your purchases. Here is a list of ingredients to watch for and avoid!

Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Oils

Otherwise known as “trans fats” these oils are man-made. They are difficult for the body to break down and have been linked to increased levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and decreased levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. Commonly found in margarine, vegetable shortening, cookies, pastries, salad dressings, breads, and chips.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Another man-made nutritional abomination. Although the research in inconclusive, HFCS has been linked to hyperactivity, increased cravings for sweets, decreased levels of leptin (the hormone that makes you feel full) and even pre diabetes. Commonly found in sweetened pops, juices, candies, cookies, baked goods and cereals.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

This preservative has been shown to be a neurotoxin within the human body. Commonly found in canned soups, fast food, diet beverages, and salad dressing.


Avoid added sugar in all forms. Labelling is getting sneakier as companies try to mask the fact that their product is full of sugar by calling it something else. Look for the following; barley malt, cane juice crystals, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextran, dextrose, diatase, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, glucose solids, honey, lactose, maltodextrine, maltose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, rice syrup, sorbitol, sorghum syrup, sucrose, treacle, and any number of things with the word sugar in them. It doesn’t matter the source, it’s still sugar.

Other food additives and preservative to avoid

BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) and BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene), Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrites, Propyl Gallate, Sodium Benzoate and Benzoic Acid, Potassium Bromate, and food colourings.

Now that you know what to avoid, what should you be filling your cart with? Like I mentioned at the beginning, most of the food you should be buying won’t have food labels or ingredients lists at all. Fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and fish don’t need a food label and have only one ingredient. For those other items, here is what to watch for.

100% Whole Wheat or 100% Stone Ground Whole Wheat

When shopping for bakery items, don’t be fooled by terms like wheat flour or enriched wheat flour. It has to say 100% whole wheat and it should be the first ingredient. Look for brands with 2-4 grams of fiber per serving.

Lean or extra lean

Look for these terms when buying meat and meat products.

Low fat, skim, or 1%

When buying reduced fat dairy products, I tend to recommend avoiding the totally fat-free options because they usually have added sugar and other things to make up for the loss of taste and texture from removing all the fat. Reduced fat is fine, but if you still want to purchase fat-free then read the label carefully to fully understand what you are consuming.

Sugar free or no sugar added

Sugar is sneaking into many foods where you wouldn’t expect it to be – like pasta sauces, spice mixes and even pre packaged tea bags! Look for sugar in the ingredients and make sure you shop around to find an option without added sugar.

22725413_4a81cb9d43_bAs a general rule the more you shop the perimeter of a grocery store the better off you will be. This is where all the fresh, unprocessed food is. Avoid the aisles and you will be avoiding most of the junk food anyways! For when you have to venture into the aisle, now you are armed and ready to read those food labels and make healthy choices!

Happy Lifting!

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7 comments for “Fit Food: Food Labels – What To Look For And What To Avoid In The Grocery Store

  1. February 2, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    In 30 years, the number of items at the grocery store has increased by over 300%? I wonder if that means roughly every decade the number of items will double going forward. I guess that explains why these stores resemble warehouses more that a typical store.

  2. Natasha
    February 2, 2013 at 9:41 am

    It’s so hard to avoid packaged food when you’re busy with work and life! Any ideas?

    • February 2, 2013 at 1:19 pm

      You need to make eating real food a priority. Take an hour or two a couple of times a week to batch cook so you always have food ready to grab and go. Always have food with you. It is a lot of hard work and dedication at first, but it does get easier.

  3. Steven A
    February 2, 2013 at 5:32 am

    More great tips and info, thanks!

  4. February 2, 2013 at 5:13 am

    Great information! there is so much fake, synthetic elements in ‘food’ these days…authenticity is crucial..keeep it real and have good good….

    • February 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Much of what passes for “food” today has very little actual food in it. Keep it real indeed!

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