Buy This, Not That: Demystifying Health Food Labels

How To

When it comes healthy eating, there’s enough conflicting advice out there to make almost anyone throw up their hands and say, “I can’t deal, I’m going to the drive-thru!”

What’s more, a lot of the so-called “healthy” foods aren’t, in fact, all that healthy — even though they’re commanding high prices at the grocery store. That’s why we’re dishing on what “healthy” foods are worth their higher price tags and which are a waste of money.

But first, there are a couple of general rules of thumb to help you buy the healthiest foods.

— “If you don’t understand the ingredients on the box, don’t buy it,” says Sharon Richter, a registered dietitian. Even if it’s in a so-called ‘health’ food store or the box says “all natural,” that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. That’s because those unfamiliar ingredients are often chemicals or additives that aren’t worth your money. “An extremely long list of ingredients often signifies that a food is highly processed,” says Registered Rietician, Megan Moore. Since highly processed foods often aren’t your best nutritional bet, spend your money elsewhere.

— Shop the perimeter of the store. “Fresh is best,” says Registered Dietician, Felicia Stoler. When possible, look for fresh fruits, veggies, dairy and meats, all of which tend to be placed on the outside areas of the store, rather than dropping cash on boxed or packaged foods. Though, Stoler adds, “There are some foods that are good for you like nuts, tuna, some types of cereal and dried beans, that are on the interior shelves.”

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than those two rules, these nutrition experts explain. Buzzwords like “natural,” “enriched” and “organic” are all over food labels these days and often command a higher price because consumers think they’re healthier. Here’s the scoop on what these words really mean and when it’s worth it to open your wallet to purchase these items.


The USDA and FDA don’t have a formal definition of the word natural, which means that it “essentially has no meaning in the U.S.,” says Stoler.  “You can’t expect that just because something says ‘all natural’ that it is healthier.”  When you’re faced with two similar products, one that says “natural,” which often costs more (you indirectly pay for their marketing costs, after all) and one that doesn’t, you’re better off “reading the labels of the products to compare ingredients,” says Moore.


The word “organic” does have a government-sanctioned definition and basically means that the food was produced without using man-made fertilizers and substances that kill insects/bacteria or synthetic growth hormones. While that’s preferable to many people,  it still doesn’t mean you need to buy everything organic, as it can cost nearly twice what non-organic produce does.

“Some foods may absorb the pesticides more than others,” says Moore. Those foods include peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes, spinach, lettuce and potatoes, so these are often worth the extra money to buy organic. However, these items are typically not worth buying organic: Onions, avocado, pineapples, mango, asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli and papaya.

If you don’t have the money to invest in organic produce, you can skip the organic labels altogther. “If you can afford organic and want to buy it, fine, but if you can’t, it’s better to eat non-organic fruit and veggies than none at all,” says Stoler.


While “enriched” sounds good — oh, lots of vitamins and minerals! – the word is a little misleading. “Enriched” typically means that a food, like a whole grain, was refined and stripped of its nutrients and then some of those nutrients were put back in. “It’s typically better to buy foods that haven’t been refined at all,” says Moore, so don’t waste your money on a product that says “enriched.”

“Super” Juices

The latest craze is juices, like those made from acai berries or pomegranates, that are marketed to seem super-healthy. Many experts agree that you’re usually better off simply eating the whole fruit itself.

Whole Grain

While whole grains are healthy, there are a lot of products that contain whole grain in such small quantities that they don’t offer the health benefits that a serving of whole grains does.“Just because a food says it ‘contains whole grains’ doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” says Stoler. “Instead, look at how much fiber it has.” The general rule of thumb is that you want cereals, breads and energy bars with at least three grams of fiber per serving,” she says.

“Buy This, Not That: Demystifying Health Food Labels” was written by Cheap Chic.

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