In a perfect world, you would only eat whole, unprocessed foods. These foods come from the ground, a tree, or an animal. Broccoli, raw almonds, and an apple are all real foods nature-packed with nutrients.

Here’s the reality: You live a busy life. Whole, unprocessed foods aren’t always available. You might travel for work or stay late hours at the job.

You’re also human. You occasionally want to indulge in something crunchy or sweet. Our Essential Bar fits the bill. Satisfying, easy to carry in your bag or purse, with just the right level of crunch and sweetness, and loaded with the highest-quality ingredients.

Most Processed Foods Don’t Make the Cut

In the real world, sometimes you’ll choose packaged processed foods. You can enjoy processed foods and stay healthy as long as you learn to read labels very carefully.

That can be tricky. Almost 3 in 4 packaged foods — 74%, to be exact — contain added sugars.1 Some of these foods might not taste sweet, or you might not be aware of the amount of sugar in each serving.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons or 38 grams of added sugar daily for men. For women, that’s six teaspoons or 25 grams daily. That’s not a lot of sugar. In fact, one 12-ounce cola can exceed that limit.2

Processed foods can contain other problem ingredients, including:

  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Excessive amounts of sugar alcohols
  • Food intolerances such as gluten
  • Preservatives, flavors, and other additives that can create reactions

You want to avoid these ingredients and choose the healthiest foods for you and your family. With the right strategies, you can. 

Food Labels Can Be Confusing

Unfortunately, the decks are stacked against you as you navigate the murky landmine of processed foods at grocery stores.

Manufacturers have all kinds of tricks to make you believe their products are healthy so you buy them.

Sometimes, they intentionally make serving sizes small. This creates an illusion of a lower-calorie or even healthy food, even though that food might contain several servings.

Manufacturers also like to distract consumers with health claims that distract from the unhealthy ingredients in that product. The front of the package might say something like “high in fiber” to distract you from the amount of sugar in that product.

Consider fruit juice. One cranberry/pomegranate juice promises  “no high-fructose corn syrup” and “100% Vitamin C” on the label. Sounds healthy, right? Read the back of the label: Every eight-ounce serving contains 30 grams of added sugar.3 That’s about six teaspoons of sugar in every serving!

Even so-called healthy foods can be unhealthy, containing added sugars and other problem ingredients. A tiny container of yogurt can contain as much sugar as a candy bar!4

Other foods you’ll find in health food stores contain so-called healthy sweeteners like agave that can actually be worse than table sugar.5

Hidden ingredients, misleading health promises, and other branding strategies can make choosing processed foods hard. Here are two ways to simplify that process.

Step 1: Pay Attention to Nutrition Facts

In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a revised Nutrition Facts label for packaged foods. They wanted the new label to make healthier food choices easier for consumers.6

You will find the Nutrition Facts on nearly any processed food. All the numbers here are important, but you’ll especially want to focus on these five.

Serving size. You’ll find this at the very top of the product’s Nutrition Facts. New labels will also include the number of servings per package. That’s important because you may eat several servings of that food.

Calories. This is the number of calories — the carbohydrates, protein, and dietary fat — in one serving of this food. If that food contains three servings, multiply those calories by three.

Beneath calories, you will find specific nutrients along with daily value for each serving. All of these percentages such as daily value are based on a 2,000-calorie-a-day.7

Based on who you are, you have unique requirements that might differ from that number. If you’re an athlete, for instance, you might need more calories for peak performance. A smaller, older, mostly sedentary person might require fewer calories.

Total carbohydrates. This includes the total sugar, starch, and dietary fiber in one serving.8 Under total carbohydrates, pay attention to three numbers:

  • Total sugars — this is the complete amount of sugar in one serving, including added and free sugars. Free sugars are those that naturally occur, such as the sugar in raisins.9
  • Added sugars — this is the amount of sugar that manufacturers add to that food. In other words, added sugar is the sugar not naturally occurring in those ingredients.
  • Dietary fiber — while technically a carbohydrate, fiber does not raise your blood sugar as other carbohydrates do. (In fact, fiber can lower blood sugar.)

Fat. First on the list is the amount of total fat in each serving. Beneath that you’ll find a breakdown of two particular types of fat:

  • Saturated fat — whereas this type of fat once got a bad rep, newer research shows that saturated fat is actually more complex and depends on the source.10 The saturated fat in coconut oil, for instance, is healthier than saturated fat from a fast-food cheeseburger.
  • Trans fat — for the most part, these fake fats are unhealthy. Manufacturers chemically alter vegetable oils, for example, for longer shelf life. They shorten your life: Trans fats can lead to heart disease, inflammation, and much more.11 The only healthy amount of trans fats is zero.

Protein — your body breaks down dietary protein into amino acids. These amino acids build and repair tissues. They also help make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals the body requires. Protein supports healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. Unlike carbohydrates or dietary fat, you can’t store protein.12 That means you need to get sufficient amounts from your diet.

If you’re in a hurry, a good rule of thumb is that a product should contain:

  • No more than 4 grams of added sugar (less is better)
  • At least 4 grams of dietary fiber (more is better)

Step 2: Read Ingredients

Nutrition Facts provide an overview of how much sugar and other potentially harmful ingredients lurk in processed foods.

Once you’ve determined that, take a closer look at the ingredients in that product. Some specific things to look for include:

  • Organic or mostly organic ingredients. Organic foods don’t carry pesticides and other toxins, and oftentimes they are higher in nutrients.13
  • Whole, unprocessed ingredients. Look for real food ingredients such as almonds rather than processed ingredients such as soybean oil and wheat flour.
  • Ingredients you can pronounce and are familiar with. Ask yourself: Would your great-grandparents recognize that ingredient? Better yet, would they recognize the food you’re eating.

Fewer ingredients are always better. Be mindful of a few problem ingredients in processed foods.

  • Artificial sweeteners go by different names, including sucralose and aspartame. One thing they all have in common: They are many, many times sweetener than table sugar.14 Artificial sweeteners can make you gain weight, increase sugar cravings, and much more.15
  • Added sugars. Researchers note there are at least  61 different names for added sugar on food labels. Among them include sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, maltose, and rice syrup.16 A good rule of thumb: Anything ending in -ose is sugar.
  • Gluten and other food intolerances. Some people react to certain ingredients, called food intolerances. Eating gluten, for instance, can create symptoms such as bloating and headaches.17 Food intolerances often hide behind other names. Salad dressings and packaged meats might contain flour, which is gluten.18 More products now contain a “gluten-free” label, but that can also distract you from other problem ingredients such as sugar.