It's all about the nutrition label.
When you think about healthy food, you may think that means fresh fruit and veggies. But many people can't get those easily — whether they live in a rural area without grocery stores nearby or a city center that's packed with low-cost fast food. If this is you, registered dietician Maya Feller says eating fresh produce isn't your only option. There are plenty of packaged alternatives that are good for you too! You just have to do one thing...
Look at the Nutrition Label
"Fresh produce is not essential. The key is to eat produce with limited additives. Frozen, dried, canned, jarred or boxed can all be good alternatives when fresh is not an option," Feller says.
Those additives Feller mentioned could be extra sugar, sodium or fat that was added to the food. How do you know whether your packaged fruit or veggies have those? Turn the item over and look at the nutrition label.
"Read the nutrition facts and ingredient labels so you are aware of what you are purchasing. For example, if you want frozen green beans, the bag should contain frozen green beans — nothing more, nothing less," Feller says.
How to Read the Nutrition Label
Nutrition labels and ingredient lists can be confusing. So here are a few key areas to look at:
This is at the very top. First, you'll see the number of servings in the entire package, with the individual serving size below that in bigger letters. Be sure to read this so you know how many pieces or how big a person typical eats of the food — because all the nutrient amounts on the label are for that amount only.
This shows how many calories are in a single serving. It's important to take this number, and the serving size, into account with your overall daily calorie count. Your doctor can help you determine how many calories you personally should be eating each day. Eating more calories than your body burns during the day (by exercising or moving around) may lead to weight gain.
This is the list of key nutrients, and how much of each, that are in the food item. To the right, you'll see how much of your daily calories are filled by that nutrient. When looking for additives, as Feller mentioned, look at these three nutrients:
Saturated Fat: This is the fat you don't want too much of in your diet. Baked goods and fried foods, processed meats and full-fat dairy items may have high amounts of saturated fats. Eating too many saturated fats may increase your bad LDL cholesterol, which can then increase your risk of heart disease and weight gain.
Sodium: Added sodium (an element of salt) is often found in packaged and prepared foods. The FDA says people should consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Eating too much sodium may lead to high blood pressure, which may increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Sugars: You may see Total Sugars as well as Added Sugars on a nutrition label. Total Sugars accounts for the sugar that is naturally present in the food item (like many healthy fruits and veggies) as well as any sugar that was added to the food later. That's what the added sugar amount shows — how much sugar (sucrose, sweeteners, syrups, honey) was added to the food when it was processed. Added sugars can be found in many processed and packaged foods, like canned fruits and veggies, bread, soup, deli meat and condiments. Eating too much added sugar may lead to obesity, diabetes, certain cancers and heart disease.
You'll find the list of ingredients under the outlined nutrition box. As Feller said, when you're buying packaged produce, try to make sure the ingredient list has only that fruit or vegetable. It's also helpful to know that the ingredients are listed in descending order. So the ingredient that weighs the most will be listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least will be listed last.
Maya Feller is a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Brooklyn. She provides medical nutrition therapy for the management of and risk reduction of non-communicable diseases. Maya is dedicated to promoting nutrition education that helps the public to make informed food choices that support health and longevity. Find her on Instagram, @mayafellerRD, and check out her book "The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook: Over 100 Recipes for a Healthy Life."