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The pursuit of a simpler, healthier lifestyle often has as much to do with what we choose to leave out as it does with adding new routines and habits. Whether it’s stress, screen time, inflammation, or problematic foods, there are plenty of things we can stand a little less of while we’re working toward our healthiest selves. Consider taking a look at your pantry while you’re tackling spring cleaning. One way that I cut back on unnecessary extras in my life is paying attention to the list of ingredients in my food, cleaning products, and stuff I slather on my body.

When it comes to grocery shopping, I always tell my clients that foods without an ingredients list—whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and healthy proteins—should make up the bulk of their haul. Make reading the labels on the products you buy a habit—look beyond the calorie count, serving size, and words like “natural” to really dig into the contents. Focus on the ingredient list on packages. Merely reading the nutrition label, as I was taught to do in my younger years, does not give an accurate enough picture of what you are really ingesting. Here are some tips to help you navigate your grocery list:

1. Beware of hidden sugar
Processed foods (those that come in bags or boxes) often have lengthy lists of ingredients and hiding among them is usually some form of sugar. When you consider that sugar is the primary contributing factor for obesity and type 2 diabetes—both at an all time high in our country right now—it’s a no brainer to cut back. But it can be tricky to find sugar (and ingredients that act similarly to sugar in the body) in ingredients lists, as it often goes by many code names: corn syrup, corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, crystaline fructose, ethyl mall, sucrose, barley malt, and maltodextrin, just to name a few. Beware of condiments and dressings, they often contain hidden sugars.

Limit foods with added sugar and stick with familiar ingredients that come from the earth. Shopping from the perimeter of the grocery store is a good rule of thumb to follow in order to avoid processed foods.

a shopping bag of vegetables

2. Avoid the unpronounceable
When reading ingredients lists of the food you buy, keep an eye out for unfamiliar items. Whole foods should be simple to recognize and pronounce. If it has a lengthy name that you don’t recognize, there’s a high likelihood that it could be a chemically-modified ingredient, dye, or preservative. Stay away from ingredients in your food that make you go cross-eyed in the grocery aisle!

3. Look out for trans-fats
Partially hydrogenated oils are a kind of trans-fat formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats like margarine and shortening. These ingredients are used in many processed foods to improve a product’s texture, shelf life, and flavor—but they can cause some serious health problems. These types of fats contribute to heart disease and inflammation in the arteries, and has recently been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. But you don’t need to be afraid of all fat! Butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, and nuts are all fair game.

4. Steer clear from unwanted hormones, preservatives, and pesticides
When possible, it’s a good idea to look for hormone-free foods and those that are produced without pesticides. Introducing unnecessary chemicals into our diets can put us at risk for adverse health effects. Here are a few to look out for:

  • Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), while not banned in the United States, has been banned in other countries. It can be found in milk and other dairy products, and it may be linked to higher rates of mastitis in cows injected with it1—more antibiotics for these cows! Consumer advocates are concerned that studies on human health related to exposure of rBGH are inconclusive and that the safety of rBHG has not been proven. t
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is a common preservative, but its use has been shown to cause cancer in rats2. Look for it in foods that contain oils which could go rancid (like cereals, potato chips, baked goods, gum, and dry dessert mixes).
  • Diphenylamine (DPA) is the chemical you can thank for the glossy sheen on many apples in the grocery store—but it’s been banned in Europe due to questions about its health impacts3. Organic apples are a safe way to avoid this chemical.

5.  Be a label detective on personal care and household products, too
Not only do I read ingredient lists for food that I buy, but I also read what is in hair, skin, and cleaning products before purchasing. When it comes to household products, companies are not required to disclose their ingredient lists on product labels, so look for brands who do. I also look for personal care and household products that disclose their fragrance ingredients. Many companies simply list “fragrance” or “parfum” in their ingredient list (that is all the law requires companies to do) and these ingredients can be conglomeration of hundreds of chemicals. (Even “unscented” products can contain fragrance to cover up unpleasant smells inherent in the product!). It can be tricky to assess the ingredients on personal care and household products because the list is usually full of unfamiliar ingredients. I always research these unknown ingredients to help me make good choices in this department.

back labels of four Seventh Generation products

Once you find brands, foods, and products you can trust, shopping will only get easier (and healthier)! What are your deal breakers when it comes to foods, household, and personal care products?