Reading the ingredient label of a packaged food product is the only way to know what's in it and how processed it is. Look for products with five or fewer whole ingredients. And don't forget those one-ingredient fruits and veggies over in the produce section!
Go easy on the sugar -- it's in many more products than sweets these days. Sugar can be listed under a variety of names (cane juice, brown rice syrup, and corn syrup, to name just a few) and hidden in seemingly innocent foods such as bread, crackers, yogurt, condiments, pasta sauce, and even salad dressing. Memorize the fact that four grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. So that yogurt with 20 grams of sugar in it contains the equivalent of five teaspoons of sugar. (Ouch.) Look for varieties with a lower sugar content, or stir honey or maple syrup into plain yogurt. You'll never have to add five teaspoons to make it sweet enough.
Be especially sure to avoid artificial ingredients, including colors, preservatives, sweeteners and flavors. Dyes usually have a number attached (Red 40, for example) and sweeteners are often listed by the generic name (like aspartame) rather than the brand name.
Avoid products advertised as being low-fat or fat-free -- yes, even milk! These foods go through an extra level of processing to have the fat removed and then, in some cases, other highly refined additives are added back in so the product still tastes good. And remember that nutritious fats like those found in olive oil, salmon, avocados, and nut butters are essential for healthy bodies.
Learn how to identify natural colors on an ingredient label. Many of these will be easy to spot because they come from fruits and vegetables, such as red beet, carrot or paprika. But there are a number of other natural colors whose names may not be as obvious. For example, annatto is a shrub seed pod that is used to color food orange or yellow; lycopene is a red phytonutrient found in tomatoes and watermelons; and anthocyanin is a red, blue, or purple pigment that gives blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries their distinctive hues.
Even by cooking only one to two more meals a week from scratch you'll be cutting down on your family's processed food intake. These meals don't need to be complicated. Soups, meats in the slow cooker, and stir-fries are all quick, simple, and easily made with whole ingredients.
Take a deep breath and keep in mind that these changes don't have to be all or nothing -- every step in the right direction counts! Commit to one change for the first month, and you and your family will be well on your way to a healthier diet.
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