Cooking from scratch is fine if you have the time and the interest, but convenience foods exist for a reason. As long as they’re healthy, the only harm in eating them is budgetary. and for many of us, the cost is well worth it. The catch, of course, is in the words “as long as they’re healthy”. Often, convenience foods aren’t healthy at all. So how do we know?
It’s tempting to buy our foods according to brands. We find a brand we like that has the price point, the flavor or the reputation we’re comfortable with, and we look no further. This system is hit or miss, but at least it is convenient, just like the foods.
If we want to get more detailed and reliable information, our best option is to read food labels, especially the list of ingredients.
When reading food labels, the first ingredient on the list is the main ingredient by weight. For example, if the first ingredient on a bread label is “white flour”, then the main ingredient in is white flour. If the first ingredient is “whole wheat flour”, then the main ingredient is “whole wheat flour”.
If the first few ingredients on a label are healthy ingredients, then the entire food is probably fairly healthy. However, if the first ingredient is healthy but the second and third ingredients, for example, are sugar and shortening, then the overall product is unlikely to be very nutritious.
The list of ingredients is also useful when trying to figure out how highly processed a product is. If there are only four or five ingredients in the list, then the product is probably not very processed. If there are ten or fifteen ingredients, however, then the food is probably highly processed and full of preservatives, colorants, artificial flavors, etc.
Counting ingredients works as a rule of thumb only, however. Trail mix, for instance, may contain more than five foods and still have little processing. However, we have to start somewhere. If cooking from fresh ingredients isn’t an option, reading labels is the next best guarantee of quality nutrition.