Imagine yourself strolling through the natural food section of your local grocery store looking for some dinnertime inspiration, when suddenly you find yourself in the chip aisle.
There you are, surrounded by a plethora of colorful organic, salty, yummy, crunchy goodies.
Your mouth starts to water as your eyes dart from sweet potato chips to wild rice chips to organic multigrain chips…and you think to yourself, “Does it really matter which one I pick? As long as it says “organic” or “all natural” it’s pretty healthy right?”
Given the wholesome reputation of organic products, one would think so. But the answer is, those chips are probably NOT healthy.
The somewhat unfortunate truth is the organic/natural food industry has gone mainstream.
This is wonderful for raising awareness about eating well and increasing availability of healthful foods. BUT, when the big food players start buying up small companies and appealing to the masses, the integrity and quality of the products often suffer.
For many, if not most big brands, garnering mass appeal means making a beloved natural or organic snack food just a teeny bit less processed than its mainstream cousin.
Perhaps they use organic flour instead of conventional, add a little brown rice syrup instead of corn syrup, or toss in a few organic ingredients.
While the differences are subtle, the labeling can be misleading.
We’ll get to our 5 easy steps to outsmart pseudo-healthy snack foods in just a moment, but before we do here’s what you need to know about labeling to help protect yourself (and your wallet) from fake snack foods:
A crash course in organic/all-natural food labeling
- A product labeled: “made with organic ingredients” must be made with 70% organic ingredients and 100% non-GMO ingredients.
This is a good thing…but that does NOT mean the product is free from unhealthy fats, emulsifiers, or thickening agents like carrageenan, unsavory non-organic ingredients, or “natural” flavors (we will get into more about natural flavors below).
- Products that bear the USDA Certified Organic label must be made up of 95% organic ingredients.
BUT that means up to 5% of the product may be made up of non-organic, questionable ingredients. Also, I must point out that an unhealthy food, such as white flour or sugar, is still unhealthy whether it’s organic or not.
- Perhaps the most misleading label of all reads, “all natural”. According to the FDA, “all natural” products cannot contain artificial preservatives or additives
So, that is some good news. However, “all natural” also pertains to any substance, adulterated or not, that originates in nature.
For example, corn is “natural”, therefore so is GMO corn or high fructose corn syrup.
Same goes for the sawdust—marketed as “cellulose”—added to foods as an anticaking agent. It comes from trees, therefore is considered “natural”, and MSG—an allergen and known excitotoxin—also falls under this category.
With all these labeling loop-holes and bizarre ingredients masquerading as “natural”, how does a health-conscious person chose quality, healthy snack foods?
It’s actually pretty easy when you follow these easy steps.
5 Easy Steps to Outsmart Pseudo-Healthy Snack Foods
Step 1: Be fastidious about fats.
Look for snacks made with coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, organic butter, ghee, and walnut oil.
Avoid snacks with highly processed oils such as canola (even GMO-free, organic canola is still bad news), cottonseed, corn, or soy. Slightly better options include peanut, sunflower, and safflower oil.
Palm oil, similar in composition to coconut oil, was once considered a healthful choice but it is no longer an ethical one.
The palm industry is responsible for the endangering of orangutans due to deforestation1. So PLEASE just say no to palm oil products.
Insider labeling tip: often a snack food will advertise that it is made with a healthy fat, such as potato chips “made with extra virgin olive oil”, but that may mean it has been cut with a lesser oil…like canola. So be sure to read labels carefully.
Step 2: Scrutinize sweeteners.
Look for brown rice syrup, raw honey, tapioca syrup, stevia*, xylitol, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and monk fruit.
Avoid, sugar, evaporated cane juice, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, turbinado sugar, agave, and especially artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose aka Splenda®, Acesulfame K aka acesulfame potassium, neotame, and saccharin.
Insider labeling tip: Many stevia products are not pure stevia but a combination of stevia and erythritol.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol added to stevia products to make them cheaper for the manufacturer. It is generally well tolerated and safe for diabetics but can produce mild GI issues such as gas and bloating.
Erythritol is one of those ingredients that isn’t super healthy in that it is processed and devoid of nutrients, but is a lot better than its alternatives: refined GMO sugar and artificial sweeteners. For this reason, I tell my patients to enjoy it in moderation.
Bottom line on Stevia: Chose pure stevia products, like Sweet Leaf®, most the time. If it’s a choice between artificial sweeteners, white sugar, or a stevia/erythritol mix go for the stevia mix.
Step 3: Just say “no thanks” to natural flavors.
This is a BIG concern with both all-natural and organic snack foods.
The term “natural flavors”, as we touched on briefly above, covers a wide range of chemically-altered, addictive, and downright gross ingredients such as:
- Shellac made from bugs—to give snack foods that shiny finish.
- Excretion of beaver urine and anal gland—known as “castoreum” used as a flavor enhancer in vanilla, strawberry and raspberry ice cream, puddings, gums, etc.
- GMO-corn products—such as maltodextrin.
If it comes from “nature” it’s fair game under the “natural flavor” label.
Organic foods are not allowed to contain artificial preservatives, dyes, or chemicals, BUT natural flavors are allowed as long as they don’t make up more than 5% of the food product.
This gets tricky with organics. Ethical companies won’t use the term “natural flavors” on principle. and if they do they will usually disclose what the natural flavor actually is on their website or label.
However, with more and more natural food companies being bought up by big food it pays to be vigilant.
Step 4: Go no-GMO! Look for the Non-GMO Project Verified label. If there is no label, scan for any GMO hot-button ingredients.
According to the Grocery Manufacturers Association2, approximately 80 percent of packaged foods contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Though controversial, studies have linked GMOs to a number of health concerns from gastrointestinal issues to cancer.
Ingredients to watch out for include corn, potatoes, sugar (approx. 95% of all sugar beets are GMO crops), pineapple, canola, tomatoes, arctic apples (newly released in 2017 to test markets, these GMO apples never brown), zucchini, cotton, papaya, alfalfa (think about cows eating this and how that translates to dairy products), and soy.
In 2013 the USDA approved voluntary labeling of non-GMO food products by the non-profit nongmoproject.org.
This was a huge victory for the natural food industry, and sent a message to big agriculture and big food. Thousands of food products from hundreds of companies have or are in the process of being verified for labeling…including Costco and WalMart!
There have been several victories for the non-GMO camp in the past year including Vermont being the first state in history to mandate GMO labeling, six counties in California (and counting) banned GMO crops, and the World Health Organization listing glyphosates (the leading pesticide used in GMO crops) as a probable human carcinogen of which the FDA is now investigating3.
Step 5: Finally, don’t forget about flour.
Organic or not, white flour or high-gluten flour should be avoided.
Whole spelt flour, einkorn flour, or sprouted flours containing shorter chains of gluten and less antinutrients would all be a better choice.
Gluten-free flours such as brown rice flour, non-GMO potato starch, almond flour, millet flour, quinoa flour, oat flour, coconut flour, or tapioca flour are preferable to whole wheat flour.
Now you’re ready to snack real-healthy
Don’t let misleading labeling take the fun or nutrition out of healthy snacking.
Follow these five steps, practice mindfulness and balance when eating, and you’ll be on the road to righteous snacking in no time.
Need more inspiration? Here are some of my favorite healthy snacks:
- Organic, fair-trade, 70% dark chocolate (need an excuse to enjoy chocolate once in awhile? Check out my post 7 Reasons to Enjoy Chocolate—Without the Guilt! on Huffington Post).
- Zevia cola (100% stevia-sweetened soda as an occasional cold, fizzy, pick-me-up).
- Mary’s Gone Crackers gluten-free crackers with guacamole.
- Kale chips, such as Brad’s Raw Chips (delicious!).
- Baby carrots or cucumbers with organic hummus.
- Raw almonds with dates…for some reason this combination is just delightful.
Here’s to happy, healthy, stress-free snacking!
Additional Reading and Watching:
For information on GMO labeling, including a list of verified companies and products, check out nongmoproject.org; and for an invaluable on-the-go reference, download The Institute of Responsible Technology’s free Non-GMO Shopping Guide.
For a good laugh about a particularly disturbing “natural flavor”, check out “FoodBabe TV’s Do you Eat Beaver Butt?”.
Get an eye-opening look at who really owns our natural food brands, by checking out this chart by The Cornucopia Institute.