As a holistic nutritionist, I always suggest food first as you strive to achieve your best health. I should clarify that by food I mean real, whole, single ingredient food. Ideally you would only eat these single ingredient foods or mix them together in delicious homemade meals. But that is not real life (at least it isn’t yet) and there are times when you need to grab items from the grocery store that come in a box or a bag. It’s these sneaky little guys that I want to tell you about.

As you reach for that delicious looking food on the shelf, you are probably drawn to health claims on the front of the package. Because I know you are trying to eat better and choose healthier options. You are pretty awesome after all. After spotting phrases like low in sodium, sugar free, or all natural you are satisfied and you toss it in your cart. It is natural, after all. 

Stop right there, sweetness and listen to this crucial step: turn the box around. Yes, that is the step you have been missing in your life. I want you to train yourself to ignore those claims on the front, pay only little attention to the Nutrition Facts panel, and focus on one place and one place only – the ingredient list.

Maybe you already knew that the ingredient list is an important indicator of what’s going on behind those cardboard panels but that’s where the knowledge stops. You feel confused when reading the ingredients and can’t remember or don’t know what is good or what you should avoid. The age-old advice is that you should not buy anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce or recognize. That is definitely a great starting point but there are ingredients that you can pronounce that you should be avoiding as well.

The ingredients you should be avoiding or watching out for can be broken into three categories:


These are essentially toxins that are added to extend the shelf life, enhance the flavours or decrease the price of a product. Watch out for artificial colours, flavours, and sweeteners. Stay away from BHA/BHT, polysorbates, sulfites, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and nitrates or nitrites. The big wig to avoid in this category is MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG is hiding in the majority of packaged foods and can be disguised under various names like yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, sodium caseinate and anything hydrolyzed. These preservative and additives are not recognized by the body, cause allergic reactions and are potential carcinogens. In your life this could translate as headaches, diarrhea, insomnia, nausea today and lead to more serious diseases like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and cancer in the future.

Bad sugars

Sugar is a sneaky son of a gun and it is EVERYWHERE. I challenge you to find a sugar free product and I don’t mean something containing an artificial sweetener. It is nearly impossible to find but you can make better sugar choices and be mindful of your sugar intake. The big wig to avoid in this category is high fructose corn syrup aka glucose-fructose in Canada. Fructose is one of the worst sugars for our bodies and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that there is a lot of fructose in high fructose corn syrup. Large quantities of fructose interfere with your hunger-full signals causing you to overeat and leading you on the path towards weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. You should limit your fructose consumption to 6 tsp or 24 grams per day but the average person is consuming nearly 19 tsp or 75 grams per day. Yikes!

Be aware that most packaged foods contain multiple sources of sugars so look for syrups, maltodextrin and anything ending in –ose.

Bad oils

Oils and fats have gotten a bad rap for heart disease and weight gain, but it’s the type of fat that matters. The body needs fats to function, so I am not saying you should avoid fats, you just need to support the body with high quality fats. Fats and oils of poor quality are incredibly damaging as well as inflammatory to the body. These refined oils challenge vital organs in the body to function efficiently. The big wig to avoid in this category is trans fats as they have been chemically altered. Stay away from anything hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, shortening or mono- and diglycerides as these are all trans fats. Be leery of all vegetable oils including canola, soybean, rapeseed, and cottonseed.


Now you are equipped with the ingredient information you need to make an educated and empowered purchase at the grocery story. Take a picture of your ingredient revelations or wins and tag me @jessicanutrition on Instagram so I can celebrate with you!