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better food choices

Processed Foods: 8 Ingredient Rules To Make Better Food Choices

better food choices

Green Giant Corn Ingredients: Sweet corn grains (without GMO), water and salt. *In France, GMO foods are labeled. In America there are no GMO labeling laws and most corn (but NOT sweet corn is GMO).

How To Make Better Food Choices From Ingredient Labels

I don’t think anyone could argue that the processed food industry has dramatically transformed our society in the last 30 years; some changes have been positive and some negative. The point of this article isn’t to argue the benefits or disadvantages of ready-made or convenience foods (although please read my nutritional call to action at the end) because processed foods are here to stay.

I wanted to share 8 food rules that I use when choosing what to buy, and to give you some hints on which is the better choice to make, in particular when comparing two foods that are nearly identical. These are the rules I try to stick with. Sometimes they get me ‘in trouble’ with my kids. I had to say no to my daughter who wanted to buy Schweppes Citrus Drink because the company started adding artificial sugars mixed with non-artificial sugars in the soda (my big pet peeve because it deceives the consumer). Same for Powerade sport drink which my son wanted to drink for his basketball match. Ditto with some cereals and cookies; if it doesn’t meet the food rules there are high chances I won’t buy it. I show my kids the food labels, so they understand why I don’t want them eating artificial sugars or foods with too many additives: my two biggest criteria when deciding what to buy.

No worries though: eating small quantities of any foods, even if they don’t meet this 8 food rules list is not dangerous for your health. Quantity matters. The statistics show that Americans eat 60% of their calories from processed foods, this is alarming. In this case, if you get more than half of your calories from processed foods, the main goal would be to cook more or eat more raw fruits and vegetables.

Here are 8 simple food rules to weigh your options.

8 Food Rules To Follow When Choosing Processed Foods 

Read the label where the list of ingredients is listed.

Ideally you look for:

  1. Shortest possible list of ingredients, noting that the principal ingredient with the most mass (weight) comes first on the list.

    better food choices

    Organic quinoa: water, quinoa, olive oil and sea salt. A good choice. Short ingredient list.

  2. Foods produced with natural ingredients, high fructose corn syrup is not a natural ingredient. Sugar is a natural ingredient.
  3. Only the ingredients you have in your pantry , if you don’t understand what is listed on the ingredient list it probably isn’t in your pantry

    better food choices

    Italian tomato sauce: tomatoes, salt, citric acid (lemons contain citric acid)-I have these 3 ingredients at home.

  4. Very few or little added sugars or artificial sugars , most processed foods contain sugars, even more harmful in my opinion is artificial sugar. Note that food companies are mixing artificial sugars with regular sugar but the consumer is not aware of this because the product is not labeled ‘diet’ or ‘light’

    better food choices

    Powerade contains artificial and natural sugar. A bad choice because of the artificial sweeteners. Gatorade is a better choice because it contains no artificial ingredients.

  5. Only fats of quality, not hydrogenated fats or oils listed as vegetable oil, olive oil or rape seed oil as preference
  6. Foods that contain the most fiber, cereals with whole grains as an example are a better choice than cereals with processed grains.
  7. No lite products: such as skim milk
  8. Little or no additives, in Europe these are listed as E-numbers
better food choices

Ingredients on Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. My kids like it, but we cannot buy in Europe . This box was brought over in our suitcase. It has a lot of additives, it is a ‘once in a while’ food.

Examples of good and less good ingredient lists (from products at my French supermarket)

This is the better choice of sauce -less ingredients, more natural (things you would have in your pantry), no artificial sugars or colors.

better food choices

Piccalilli English Sauce: water, cauliflower, pickles, alcohol vinegar, spices, malt vinegar, onion, sugar, red wine vinegar, salt, celery, modified starch, herbs, natural aromas

Compared to this sauce: long list of ingredients, less healthy fat, lots of additives.

better food choices

Caesar salad sauce: soybean oil, water, wine vinegar, sugar, Parmesan cheese, egg yolk, salt, vinegar, aromas, lactic acid, mustard grains, powered garlic, xanthan, perservatives, caramel color, spices, malt vinegar, molasses, onion powder, anchovies, tamarin, EDTA, vitamin E

When Comparing Two Similar Foods -such as ketchup

The better choice: less ingredients, natural and food that you would find in your pantry.

better food choice

Heinz Ketchup: tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, salt, spices and herbs -(containing celery)

Compared with this ketchup: A syrup of sugars (glucose/fructose), and ingredients that are transformed (cornstarch)

better food choice

Auchan Store Brand : 67% tomatoes, glucose-fructose mix, alcohol vinegar, cornstarch, salt, sugar, natural spice aroma and other natural aromas, traces of celery and milk


Heinz ketchup costs more but is a better choice. 

This list is adapted from Le Bon Choix au Supermarché:

Call to Action: The Best Choice is Eating Home Cooked Meals Made From Scratch

Did you know that 74% of food in supermarkets is produced by industrial means? Processed foods are a big business , food companies make it attractive and cheap to buy their foods. In some countries like America , it is cheaper to buy ready-to-eat foods than to make the meals at home. This is the American food culture that I wrote about a few years ago. My call to action, especially for parents, is to cook more and get your kids involved too. Meals can be simple, such as scrambled eggs and a green salad or baked potatoes filled with steamed broccoli and cheddar cheese. The longest part is planning a menu and sticking with it. What is your easiest ‘go-to’ home cooked meal? Share it in the comments with us.

Do you have a story to tell or just got to the end and want to read more? I would love to share my professional and personal stories as a nutritionist and mom living in France, just ‘next door’ to Italy, my second heart home. You can follow me on Twitter, or sign up for article updates and newsletter by clicking the button below. Your email will always remain private and by subscribing you can download your free E-report on “10 Simple Ways to Eat Like the French Without Having a Food Snob Attitude.”

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Warmly, Mary

One Response to Processed Foods: 8 Ingredient Rules To Make Better Food Choices

  1. AZ@...And a Dash of Cinnamon February 14, 2017 at 14:38 #

    Definitely important since so much of our food is now overly processed and bulked up with sugars and chemicals.
    AZ@…And a Dash of Cinnamon recently posted..Chocolate Coverered Strawberry and Cashew Butter Baked Protein Oatmeal [Clean, Vegan, GF]

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