The Best of Packaged Foods
Post by Paula Jahn, Co-owner and Registered Dietitian at Nourish Northwest
I quietly envy those homesteaders who have self-sustaining gardens, churn their own butter, and collect eggs every morning. I have frequently made my own bread, yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, granola, etc., and it is immensely rewarding. But in reality, I don’t make the time to do these things every week. Nor do I expect my clients to.
As a whole foods cooking teacher and dietitian, I have mixed emotions about writing a post about processed foods. I encourage my clients to eat as close to a whole foods diet as possible. However, I try to not push an agenda on anyone and instead guide clients toward healthier choices by making suggestions that fit into the context of their individual circumstances. That sometimes means doing research on better fast food or processed food options. Many clients ask, “What’s the best yogurt to buy? Are there any healthy granolas out there?”
Below is my “best of” list* of the four most requested packaged food items from my clients. These items made the list because the quality varies so wildly within each category; a food on one end of the spectrum can have almost nothing in common with the same food on the other end. My general criteria for choosing a particular brand is to put the ingredients through “the kitchen test.” This means that a person with standard kitchen equipment, whole foods ingredients, and a little skill, could feasibly make the product.
Yogurt is a prime example of the wide range of quality you will find. It’s hard to believe that gummed-up, slimmed down, artificially flavored-colored-sweetened pudding is even called yogurt.
Selection criteria: Look for plain, whole milk yogurt. Most flavored yogurts have over 20 grams of added sugar per serving. That’s over 5 teaspoons for a 6 ounce container! It is much better to add your own natural sweetener like 1 teaspoon of honey, which only adds 5 grams of sugar. Flavor it with chopped fresh fruit or frozen berries. Yogurt made with organic and/or grass-fed milk will contain more omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients.
Granola makes a satisfying breakfast either eaten alone or with a little yogurt (see above). It can be packed with funky oils and lots of added sugar in many forms. It is difficult to find a store bought granola that passes the kitchen test. Cottonseed oil and high fructose corn syrup are not easily available to the home cook.
Selection criteria: Since granola is so easy to make, the kitchen test is a big part of the criteria. It should have nuts, seeds, grains, a common natural sweetener and oil. Sugar is the big challenge, even with granolas with good ingredients. Look for granola that has 8 grams or less of sugar on the nutrition facts label.
I used to emphasize looking for “100% Whole Grain” on the label of bread until I looked at the ingredient list. Even whole wheat flour spikes blood sugar, not to mention the added sugars in bread. There are few healthy breads on the market.
Selection Criteria: The best is to buy flourless, sprouted grain breads or European style rye bread. There are no added sugars to these types of bread. Better yet, sprouting grains or fermenting the dough makes the grains more digestible.
Examples: Any Food For Life bread product, any European style rye bread such as local Regular Portland Bread
This category is the one I am most likely to say “Just make them,” or “Just eat real food, ” but that is not what this post is about.
Selection Criteria: Keep the sugars (unless from fruit) below 7 grams per bar. Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein per bar. Avoid agave nectar, corn sugars, artificial sweeteners and flavors.
Examples: Kind Nut Delight Snack Bar or Cashew and Ginger Spice, LaraBar Original Fruit and Nut Bar
*This list is not inclusive and reflects the opinion of the author.