Shopping with the skinny girl: don't be duped by food claims

Be cautious when reading package labels.
Some claims may be unsubstantiated.
photo: David Shankbone

Though we may stray from our goals from time to time, most of us strive to live healthy lives.  We serve balanced meals to our families.  We aim to model a healthy lifestyle for our children.  We exercise with as much regularity as our schedules allow.

Big food knows about our good intentions, and manufacturers are jockeying to tap into our efforts.  How?  They've come up with a bevy of food items, known as "functional foods," to sell us.  These food items are big money.  The New York Times reports functional food sales in the US totaled $37.3 billion in 2009.  What are they?  In short, they are foods represented as delivering the golden ticket to health and wellness.  You've seen them everywhere.  They are the foods that are supposed to improve your heart, lower your cholesterol, aid digestion and boost your immune system.  They may improve your eyesight or cleanse your colon.

Sounds good, right?  Should you stockpile these products?

As with any heavily marketed product, be very wary, my health-conscious friend.  The FDA has warned a host of manufacturers over the last year for misleading consumers when it comes to these claims.  Here are a few of my tips for navigating the grocery store and ensuring you don't get duped by dubious claims:

  1. Always turn the product over and look at the nutrition label.  This will tell you the real story about the product.  If a product is supposed to be good for your immune system but has excessive sugar, salt, or fat, you can safely bypass the product.  
  2. Make sure the bulk of your food items come from the periphery of the grocery store.  This is where all the fresh produce and meats are stored.  Only visit the packaged food aisles after shopping the periphery.  Then buy food items from these areas sparingly.
  3. If a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Though foods can have amazing properties that do promote health, they are not drugs.
  4. Look for items naturally high in the nutrient that interests you.  For example, rather than getting granola bars infused with omega 3's, go for the nuts, flax, and fish that are naturally high in omega 3's.

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