This term has yet to be fully defined and often goes unregulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that it has not developed a definition for the term, but it does not object to it being used for foods that do not contain artificial flavors, added color, or synthetic substances. While consumers may like to believe that "natural" means the product is less processed, this may not always be the case. Don't assume "natural" means healthy. Be sure to look past this term and analyze nutrition labels and ingredient lists.
"Low Sugar" or "Sugar Free"
Eating less sugar can improve health and promote weight loss, but when a product says it is "low sugar" or "sugar free," check the ingredient label closely. This often means that the sugar was replaced with something else, usually an artificial sweetener. Some research has linked the intake of artificial sweeteners to weight gain. As researchers continue to investigate the topic, it may be best to limit both added sugars and artificial sweeteners.
"Trans Fat Free"
The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total calories per day. For most people, this is fewer than 2 grams. According to labeling laws, a food that contains fewer than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving can be labeled as "trans fat free." If you eat more than one serving of a food with just under 0.5 grams of trans fat, you will quickly reach your 2 gram limit without realizing it. Read ingredient lists closely. The phrase "partially hydrogenated oils" is an indicator that the product contains trans fat.
"Product" or "Food"
These terms are often used when food has been heavily processed or when it combines a variety of ingredients to form a product that resembles a food you may be familiar with. The most common use is with cheese. Check the labels closely. "Cheese foods" and "cheese products" may contain little to no cheese at all. You may be better off enjoying a small amount of the real food in moderation instead of consuming the highly-processed fillers.
"Spread" is a term used when a product does not meet regulations to be called the food it resembles. For example, peanut butter must contain 90 percent peanuts. When the product doesn’t, it is called a peanut spread. In some cases, spreads use fillers like corn-syrup solids and partially hydrogenated oils. These ingredients may lower total fat, but they increase added sugar and dangerous trans fats. It may be better to skip artificial spreads and eat the original form of the food in moderation.
"Made with "
Many products claim that they are "made with fruit" or "made with whole grains." However, there is no set amount of the ingredient the food must contain to make this claim. It’s possible that it only has a tiny amount of fruit or whole grains. Look for "100%" to ensure the food contains only the ingredients you are searching for.
Sodium is an essential mineral that is important for muscle and nerve function, but too much may put you at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that healthy adults consume fewer than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day so look out for the following hidden sources.
One cup of chicken broth can have as much as 860 milligrams of sodium. Some canned green beans contain 390 milligrams per half cup. When you use these products in recipes that call for even more salt, the sodium content in your meal can get out of control. Always look for canned foods with “low sodium” or “unsalted” on the label.
From scalloped potato kits to pancake mixes, these products serve as shortcuts to save time in the kitchen, but it may not be worth it. Flavorings and preservatives add excess amounts of sodium to these packaged foods. Some baking mixes contain 410 milligrams per serving. Check labels closely before you decide to save time cooking with these products.
Poultry, Fish, and Seafood
Chicken and fish can be a healthy choice, but don’t ignore the nutrition label just because they are fresh foods. Some poultry is injected with sodium and some fish and seafood are washed in high-sodium baths to improve flavor, texture, and appearance. Injected poultry can have five to eight times more sodium than untreated poultry. Look for labels stating that there is no added salt or sodium.
A salad full of vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein can quickly be ruined by pouring on a high-sodium salad dressing. Two tablespoons of ranch dressing contains as much as 260 milligrams. Trade bottled dressings for olive oils, flavored vinegars, and citrus juice. You can also try mixing up your own low-sodium salad dressing at home. (See 5 Low-sodium Salad Dressing Ideas.)
When you use bread, lunch meat, and cheese to build a sandwich, you are combining three of the worst culprits for hidden sodium. Turkey sandwiches from popular fast food restaurants can contain 800 to 1400 milligrams! By selecting low-sodium bread and topping it with homemade vegetables, roasted chicken or hummus, you can drastically reduce the sodium in your meal.
Plant-based foods are full of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals, but they also offer natural chemicals called phytonutrients that improve health. While these plant nutrients are not essential for normal body function, they are powerful in disease prevention – making plant foods an important part of a nutritious diet. Enjoying a variety of foods will help you maximize your intake of these phytonutrients.
How it helps: A disease fighting phytonutrient. Research shows that ellagic acid may promote the death of cancer cells.
What to eat: Blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, raspberries, pomegranates, pecans, and walnuts
How it helps: These anti-inflammatory compounds may help reduce the pain and inflammation caused by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
What to eat: Ginger root
How they help: Glucosinolates breakdown into active compounds when vegetables are chopped or chewed. These compounds may fight cancer by preventing DNA damage from carcinogens or the creation of cancer cells.
What to eat: Arugula, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and radishes
How it helps: This flavonoid has been found to reduce the inflammation associated with chronic disease reducing risks for cancer.
What to eat: Citrus fruits
How it helps: This phytonutrient has been found to reduce the risk for chronic disease by inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.
What to eat: Broccoli, beans, endive, grapes, kale, leeks, strawberries, and tomatoes
How it helps: Some studies suggest that lycopene can reduce the risk of cancer by blocking the growth of cancer cells. It is also associated with a reduced risk for heart disease and age-related vision problems.
What to eat: Tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, and papaya
How they help: These compounds may protect against gastric and colorectal cancer. They may also reduce the the inflammation that is associated with cardiovascular disease.
What to eat: Chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots
How it helps: Research shows that this flavonol may reduce the risk for asthma, cancer and heart disease.
What to eat: Apples, berries, grapes, and onions
How it helps: This antioxidant has been linked to the prevention of blood vessel damage, reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol, and reduced risk for cancer.
What to eat: Blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, peanuts, and pistachios
While health experts recommend eating more fish and less red meat, concerns about mercury, sustainability, and cooking methods may be keeping you from making the change.
Concerns about mercury
Fish is full of nutrients, but some fish are also high in mercury. Mercury is not a major health concern for most people, but high levels of mercury can damage developing nervous systems.
According to the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, women who may become pregnant, who are currently pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should avoid high mercury fish.
Larger fish tend to have higher mercury levels because they feed on smaller fish. Health agencies recommend that high-risk groups avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Up to 12 ounces of low mercury fish and shellfish can be enjoyed each week such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, and catfish.
Making sustainable choices
Fishing and farming methods influence the population of fish and the ecosystems that are important for healthy marine life. The popularity of fish as a health food has put some species at risk for overfishing, which has decreased the population to dangerously low levels. To solve issues with overfishing, many fish are now farm-raised. While farm-raised fish can be a healthy choice, some are raised in unhealthy environments, spreading disease and parasites.
All of these factors make choosing a truly healthy fish a difficult task, but there are resources to help. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® program provides a guide for selecting fish based on human and environmental health as well as the health of the fish species. Types of fish are divided into “Best Choices,” “Good Alternatives,” and “Avoid.” This guide is updated every six months and serves as a reliable resource for making healthy, sustainable fish choices. (See the Seafood Watch® Seafood Recommendations.)
Best cooking methods
Fish and seafood are full of lean protein, but when battered and deep fried, the added saturated fat and sodium quickly turn a healthy choice into an unhealthy meal. There are plenty of flavorful ways to prepare fish without canceling out all of the nutritional benefits. Bake or broil fish fillets with fresh herbs and finish it off with a squeeze of lemon or lime before serving. Steam whole fish or fish fillets with fresh greens and add spices like curry or chili powder. Marinate large fish fillets for a few minutes in olive oil, herbs, and citrus zest and grill over high heat. You also don’t have to give up breaded, crispy fish. Use cornmeal, whole wheat bread crumbs, or almond meal to coat fish fillets and then bake or skillet fry in a small amount of olive, avocado, or virgin coconut oil.
Opening the fridge to find your fruits and vegetables have spoiled is not only frustrating, it’s like tossing your food budget into the compost pile. Learning how to select and store fresh fruits and vegetables will help you increase the shelf life, so you can enjoy them longer.
Selecting the best produce
Everyone has tips and tricks for picking the right melon or apple, but there are a few general guidelines to follow to ensure you get the freshest produce possible.
Avoid fruits and vegetables that have visible bruising or damage. This may cause them to spoil faster.
The fruit or vegetable should be heavy for its size, which signals that it is fully mature and ripe.
Produce should be tender to the touch, but it should not be mushy or soft.
Sniff it. A pleasant aroma indicates ripeness. This is especially true when selecting melons.
Talk to the produce manager at the supermarket and the vendor at the farmers market to find out when the food was harvested. The most delicious fruits and vegetables are those that ripen on the vine and those that are eaten soon after harvest.
Some fruits are climacteric, which means they ripen after they are harvested. Apples, avocados, bananas, kiwis, mangoes, pears, and tomatoes are good examples. As they ripen, these fruits release ethylene gas, which can cause other fruits and vegetables to spoil, so it's important to store climacteric foods separately from other produce. They need warm temperatures to speed ripening, and they will ripen over time when stored at room temperature. You can speed ripening by placing them in a paper bag for a day or two, which concentrates the ethylene gas.
The first instinct is to put fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator to preserve freshness, but not all produce is best kept at cold temperatures.
Bananas, mangoes, melons, pineapples, persimmons, tomatoes, and ginger are all best stored at room temperature. When ripe, most will last 3 to 5 days.
Apples, avocados, kiwis, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums can be ripened on the counter and then transferred to the fridge to extend shelf life. Apples can last up to a month in the crisper. Kiwis will last 7 to 10 days. Avocados, peaches, nectarines, plums, and pears will last 3 to 5 days.
Most citrus fruits maintain the best flavor at room temperature and they will stay fresh on the counter for a week. You can extend the shelf life to several weeks by storing them in the refrigerator.
Many fruits and the majority of vegetables are best stored at temperatures no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Store fruits and vegetables in separate crispers. Never store produce in sealed plastic bags. However, perforated bags can help preserve freshness. Avoid washing produce before storing it in the refrigerator as this can cause it to spoil quickly.
Asparagus and summer squashes will last 4 to 5 days.
Greens like kale and collards will last 2 to 5 days, while lettuces stay fresh for 5 to 7 days.
Cauliflower and broccoli stay fresh for 3 to 5 days.
Most varieties of peppers will keep for 1 week.
Beets, carrots, cabbages, celery and radishes keep 1 to 2 weeks.
Berries will last 2 to 3 days.
Cherries and grapes will stay fresh for about 1 week.
Long-term pantry and cellar storage
Most root vegetables and winter squash can be stored for extended periods without spoiling. The best storage conditions are 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in a well ventilated, dark area like a pantry or cellar, away from sunlight.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes will keep for 1 to 2 weeks. Avoid direct light because it can cause potatoes to turn green. Also avoid storing potatoes and onions together. Each give off gases that can cause the other to spoil more quickly.
Onions and garlic will stay fresh for 2 to 4 weeks.