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Back-to-school means back-to-snacks when it comes to doing your weekly shopping. Parents try to keep their cupboard stocked with a variety of nutritious and tasty treats. How can you tell which snacks are really good for you, and which are being made to sound like they are through clever packaging? Here are seven ingredients and food marketing buzzwords to keep an eye out for the next time you hit the supermarket.
- "Enriched flour, Enriched Wheat Flour" Enriched flour might sound good at first, but it’s actually describing part of the milling process in which nutrients are removed to make for a finer textured flour. It has been “enriched” with the addition of iron, but it’s what has been removed that is more concerning. Those now-removed nutrients are what help regulate the way the sugar is released into your body. So if you are eating something with enriched flour, you’re going to experience a quick sugar high (and consequently a sugar low). So look for rye flour, oat flour, brown rice flour, and whole wheat flour. Even the phrase “enriched wheat flour” is deceptive; it has to say “whole wheat” to be certain you are eating a whole grain.
- "Low Fat/Reduced Fat" Before you get swayed by a package that touts its product as being low fat or reduced fat, check the sugar content. It might sound healthier, but the amount of sugar is often just as high or higher than its fuller fat counterpart. And with reduced fat, the only truth behind that claim is that it has less fat than the regular full fat version. When it comes to items like chips, reduced fat doesn’t make it a healthy snack alternative; odds are it is still high in fat, just not as high in fat as the regular chips.
- "Hydrogenated Oils " If your snack bag contains this, it also contains trans fats, even if it says otherwise on the front of the bag. How can that be? In the packaging lingo world, “0 grams trans fat” can technically mean “up to .5 gram trans fat.” Since many companies now have reduced their serving sizes so that the calorie count sounds better (it may be 100 calories a serving, but the serving size is so small that you end up eating 2-3 servings) you may end up consuming more trans fats than you realize.
- "Corn Syrup" Like enriched flour, corn syrup sounds a lot better than it really is. High-fructose corn syrup is made by changing the sugar in cornstarch to fructose—another form of sugar. It is used because it extends the shelf life of processed foods and costs less to produce than regular sugar. It is often used in foods that you wouldn’t want your kids to indulge in very often anyway (it’s a key ingredient in most sodas), so consider it a red-flag ingredient when shopping.
- "Salt/Sodium" Your dietary preferences are established when you are a child, so kids who consume a lot of sodium chloride are likely to continue to do so as adults. Since consuming high levels of sodium is linked with high blood pressure and hypertension, try to limit your child’s sodium intake. Many junk foods are high in sodium, but it also lurks in snacks items that we consider more nutritious, such as soup. (Many ramen noodle soups contain as much as 60% of the daily allotment of sodium in just one serving.) Look for reduced-sodium alternatives whenever possible.
- "Organic" This is another word popping up on labels everywhere, but you are only assured that an item is 100% organically grown and pesticide free if the phrase “certified organic” is used.
- "Natural" Natural doesn’t always mean natural. As with many catchy phrases and buzzwords that marketing departments use to help move their products off the shelf, many claims are too vague to be substantiated, or sound better than they really are. (Made with real fruit might sound good at first, but exactly what percentage of real fruit are we talking about?) It’s best to take a few moments to review the nutritional content label on the back to determine just how “natural” the product really is. Better still; head to the produce department—it’s the items without any packaging whatsoever that really are “natural.”
When reviewing any label, fewer ingredients means a greater chance that it’s a healthy snack choice. If the ingredient list is so long that it includes items that aren’t “real” (food coloring, preservatives, additives), it might be wise to find another snack option altogether.
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