Deciphering Labels and What “Processed” Means from NYC Registered Dietitian

teaspoon of sugar

Last week I discussed two studies that proved ultra-processed foods can shorten a lifespan and make you gain weight. Over the years, convenience has been edging out nutritious choices. Convenience stores have popped up all over urban American, replacing supermarkets and Farmer’s markets, and the sugar industry pulled a doozy on us. Basically, we were misinformed for generations! Generations of people are paying hefty price for these lifestyle changes and bad information – our health.

So, let’s set the record straight on processed foods and unprocessed.

  1. Not all processed foods are bad. Processed simply means a food has changed from its natural state. Any processed food, then, has a label. Applesauce, for instance, is processed. Pasteurized milk, canned vegetables, feta cheese (unless you have a goat in your yard), are all processed foods.nutrition.label
  2. Don’t believe them! I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I don’t believe what the packaging is selling. This means we all have to become label literate. Reading nutrition labels is the first step to healthy choices. Ingredients are always listed from most predominant to least predominant. The more ingredients, the more processed. And once you start getting into unpronounceable ingredients, put the package down. It’s simply not healthy.
  3. Don’t be deceived. If you take a close look at the images from the NYT article, many meals look “healthy.” Turkey meatballs with marinara sauce, quesadillas, chicken salad sandwiches – all seem healthy. But understanding their origins, reading labels on the “heat-and-eat” packaging would tell a different story. Eating clean and ingredient awareness is key.
  4. What will the kids eat? Oh, the convenience of the kid’s menu … baskets filled with fried chicken and chips and a couple of limp carrot sticks. It’s time to retrain our taste buds, as families. Getting our kids to be adventurous with food starts with us. Trying new flavors and textures – instead of the go-to chicken basket – takes mindfulness and intention. And with summer, we’re in luck! What better time to kick bad habits than the season where fruits and vegetables abound? 
  5. Know your sugar names. Sugar has more aliases than Jason Bourne: brown sugar, corn syrup, corn sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, honey, invert sugar, malt sugar, molasses, syrup … oh my! The thing is, as Americans, we consume way too much sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six added teaspoons of sugar per day (for women) and 9 (for men). How does this translate on the food label? There are four grams of sugar per teaspoon. That means, women and men shouldn’t eat more than 24 grams/36 grams of sugar per day, respectively. What does this mean in our daily choices?mochaccino
  6. Beware of the beverage! It’s summertime, which has become synonymous with frappuccinos, mochaccinos, and sweet coffee drinks. If you’re not going black with chunks of ice, your body is in for a doozy of a sugar rush. Coffee drinks can have 2 ½ days worth of sugar for women if nothing else they eat has any added sugar. (Which is unlikely). 
  1. A Starbucks Bottled Mocha Frappuccino beverage has 31 grams of sugar. (7 grams over recommended DAILY consumption).
  2. A 16oz. vanilla Frappuccino has 67 grams of sugar (the light version has 39). 
  3. A bottle of chocolate milk has 26 grams of sugar.
  1. Visualize what you’re putting in your body. Sometimes numbers are hard to visualize. So, next time you eat or drink something with added sugars, add four teaspoons per gram in a glass or cup. Now, mix it with water and try to drink it. Yep. Try a sip of Coca Cola. You’ll see how the manufacturer alters the products so our taste buds can handle all that sugar. Your teeth will hurt doing it, but it’s a powerful, powerful way to visualize the sugar going into your body. 

Simply knowing what we’re eating will make a huge difference in how we shop, and what we choose to put on our plates and in our bodies. Educating ourselves is the first step to health.