Clean Eating Guidelines for Choosing Healthy Packaged Foods

Organic does Not Mean Healthy

When it comes to packaged food, label claim deception is rampant. There’s an old adage that goes something like this: Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see. If your goal is healthy and clean eating this should definitely be your approach to packaged food products – especially the ones with flashy label claims splashed on the front of a box or can.

Organic! All Natural! Vegan!!

We’ve all seen these types of labeling claims – and we’ve probably fallen for many of them.

I certainly don’t want to label anyone a poor food shopper, but I thought I’d dish out simple tips so you – to quote The Who –  won’t get fooled again!

And sure, you could just buy only single ingredient foods (brown rice, beans, fruit, nuts, etc.) and forget about the packaged foods entirely but because so many healthy packaged foods do actually exist it’s really going to unnecessary extremes to ban them entirely. I sure don’t! But, in my pursuit of clean eating I’ve found following these rules to be the biggest help…


Clean Eating Guidelines for Choosing Healthy Packaged Foods

Tip #1: Ignore the Nutrition Facts….Read the Ingredients Instead.

All calories are not created equal. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to eat healthy or lose weight is that they often turn to the Nutrition Facts for reference. The FDA requires all packaged foods to slap the Nutrition Facts on food labels (note: fresh foods like apples and oranges do not need to have their Nutrition Facts labeled.)

Ironically the Nutrition Facts tell you absolutely nothing about the intrinsic health and nutrition properties of the food. A perfect example is the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Chicken Salisbury Steak frozen entrée. This food (if you can really call it that?) might only have 280 calories and might look like a good choice if you were to read the Nutrition Facts but the reality is you are kidding yourself if you think eating this meal is going to help change the way you age, look and feel for the better.

As a weight loss surgeon who intimately understands the science of appetite, Andy can assure you it won’t help you achieve lasting weight loss either. The Nutrition Facts promotes the idea that all calories are equal and that “counting food” in the form of calories, carbs, fat grams, and so forth is a healthy way to lose weight and gain health. This is just not so.

Before I go further…take a look at exactly what is in the Weight Watchers Smart Ones Salisbury Steak frozen entrée as listed in the Ingredients:

Ingredients in Weight Watchers Smart Ones Salisbury Steak

Cooked Salisbury Steak patty with caramel color added (beef, water, onions, textured vegetable protein product [soy protein concentrate, caramel color], seasonings [ corn maltodextrin, salt, hydrolyzed soy and corn protein, dry onion, garlic, natural flavor, yeast extract, spice, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, extractive of rosemary, beef extract, modified cornstarch, flavor (triacetin, butter acids, flavorings, butter esters), rendered beef fat, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil], soy protein concentrate, zinc oxide, niacinamide, ferrous sulfate, copper gluconate, vitamin A palmitate, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, cyanocobalamin], bread crumbs [bleached wheat flour, dextrose, yeast, partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, salt], asparagus, water, mushrooms, contains 2% or less of: red bell peppers, modified food starch (corn, potato), margarine (soybean oil, water, salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin, sodium benzoate, natural flavor, artificial flavor, beta carotene [color], vitamin A palmitate), beef base (roasted beef and concentrated beef stock, hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat protein autolyzed yeast extract, sugar, salt, corn maltodextrin, chicken fat, corn oil, onion powder, spice extractives), onions, burgundy wine* (burgundy wine, salt, sulfites), salt, sugar, sautéed mushrooms, flavor enhancer (hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy protein and wheat gluten, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils), xanthan gum, chicken and beef stock flavor blend (potassium chloride, corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, beef stock powder, chicken stock powder, corn maltodextrin), granulated garlic, pepper (black, white), flavor enhancer (dextrose, salt, autolyzed yeast extract, modified cornstarch), caramel color, canola oil, natural flavoring, onion powder, hydrolyzed soy and wheat proteins, spice extractives)

This “Smart Ones” entrée is clearly not a smart choice when you see it has ingredients like corn syrup solids, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, soy protein concentrate and rendered beef fat (yuck!) The problem is if you rely on the Nutrition Facts for guidance you might actually think this is a healthy choice. The Nutrition Facts deceive people into thinking all calories are equal. This is just not the case.

The Nutrition Facts label is actually so difficult to interpret that the FDA publishes a ten page long, color-coded and awfully complex guide that is supposed to help the public make smart choices. It’s not working.

The Nutrition Facts label is a reflection of what Congress has said it should be in order to keep the big food companies happy. Keep in mind it is highly profitable for food companies to include cheap, nutrient-poor and highly processed ingredients such as corn syrup solids in their foods. If corn syrup is fat free and cholesterol free then that makes it a good selling point on the Nutrition Facts label.

Don’t Trust the Packaging

If a food happens to have less than ½ a gram of trans fat and a food manufacturer can claim it is “Trans Fat Free” on the Nutrition Facts label then this makes for another good selling point. It might be a good selling point but it’s not good for health. In the case of trans fats even a teeny tiny bit matters…and if you eat a lot of packaged foods and/ or you eat more than a single serving (does a normal person really only eat ¾ cup of cereal?) then it adds up quick. Studies show a teeny-tiny increase of less than 3 grams of trans fats a day is enough to result in an astounding 50% increase in heart attacks and deaths (1). Bottom line, the Nutrition Facts label is very political and tells you nothing about whether the food is nutrient-dense or not. Forget about the Nutrition Facts and read the ingredients list instead.

Tip #2: Use common sense. Avoid packaged foods containing ingredients you would not normally keep in the pantry. Ethoxylated diglycerides? Ammonium sulfate? Don’t know what these ingredients are? Neither do I. That’s why I don’t eat them!

Tip #3: Avoid Processed Empty-Calorie Vegetables Oils. Mass market vegetable oils (“pure” vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, etc.) are ultra-refined, pro-inflammatory oils. Not only do vegetable oils add empty calories but they also disrupt your body’s balance of omega-3 fats, which can decrease your sensitivity to insulin (increasing risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity) and increase inflammation and worsen symptoms of inflammatory conditions.


Tip #4: Don’t swallow the claim that all organic, natural and vegan foods are healthy. While studies suggest certain organic foods have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts, the sad truth is that many organic, all-natural and vegan packaged and processed foods contain lots of refined sugar, refined empty calorie vegetable oils, and refined empty calorie flour. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. The new organic Oreo’s are STILL Oreo’s. You would be far better off eating a non-organic apple.

Recall the fat-free craze of the 1990’s? People were actually fighting over SnackWells Devil Food Cakes, then eating them by the boxful. Sure there was no fat. But there were plenty of empty calories! Well, it’s deja vu all over again as consumers flock to products advertised as “all natural” or “organic.”  Avert your eyes to the label claims and read the important part off the label —-the ingredients. The print is smaller back here but the message reads loud and clear to the enlightened clean eating enthusiast.


Tip #5: Identify sweet nothings. A simple rule of thumb is to avoid any food that has HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) in the ingredients list; if a manufacturer uses HFCS you know they are focused first and foremost on creating a food product as cheaply as possible. But in the world of vegan, organic and all-natural foods it’s easy to get stumped with healthy sounding ingredients such as barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice sugar, cane syrup, etc. These sugars supply the exact same number of empty calories as HFCS. Sugar is sugar. Since labels list ingredients by weight it is best to avoid any product that has sugar listed in the top three ingredients.

Clean Eating = Nutrient Dense Foods

Your favorite grocery store is packed with all sorts of junk foods – some more obvious than others. Know that most often the simpler the list of ingredients, the better the food.

Simple is good. But simple isn’t everything. The simple foods also need to be nutritious!

Avoid flour, sugar and refined vegetable oil as often as you can. Opt, instead, for simple, nutrient-rich, unprocessed ingredients.


1.       Willet WC, et al. “Intake of trans fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease among women.” Lancet. 1993 Mar 6; 341(8845):581-5.)

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  1. What an informative and helpful article! I agree that most people, myself included, are not aware of what is actually included in most pre-packaged meals. I have to admit that I’ve been “duped” by relying on the nutrition facts instead of reading through the list of ingredients. Hope that lots of people will read your article and change the way they look at food cartons.

  2. I am glad you address this topic and provide some guides for shoppers. As one whose been working out vigorously for twenty plus years, I have tried it all from supplements to preparing my own meals from whole foods. Since I don’t have time to always prepare my food, I find a happy medium by buying some frozen meal and packaged foods. It is important for people who buy these to know the realities you point out such as how politics and big business affect what goes into foods. If people are aware of this, they will learn not to rely completely on promotional catch phrases on the packaging.

  3. I understand the concept of the fewer ingredients the better and the healthier for you but I also understand that these foods cost a lot more as well. Why is that the case? It is so expensive to live healthy. We have everybody from the first lady on down trying to get our kids and ourselves to eat more healthy but nobody has tried to get them to lower the prices of the healthier foods.

    1. Such a good point Eddie. and sadly you are right, in many cases it absolutely DOES cost more to eat healthy (sure you can buy whole grains & beans pretty cheap) but fruits and vegetables are very expensive for the few calories they provide. Raw nuts & raw seeds are more calorie dense than fruits and veggies, but they too are pricey…and getting top quality animal foods (such as organic eggs from pastured chickens) is super expensive. The reality is the cost of food is complicated and political. For example, agribusiness produces over 9 billion bushels of corn a year, much of it is fed to livestock (corn is a subsidized crop but it’s a deviant diet for animals, but that’s another issue!) or becomes high fructose corn syrup to cheaply sweeten sodas and processed foods. Subsidized crops (like corn and soy) result in overproduction, which drives consumption and price. I’m not really an expert in this area but I think one of the biggest problems is that the USDA favors corporate profit over human (and animal) health. I haven’t read the books in a while but Mark Bittman’s FOOD MATTERS & THE WAY WE EAT WHY OUR FOOD CHOICES MATTER by Peter Singer & Jim Mason discuss some of these issues. Michael Pollan does too in some of his books. I wish I had a simple solution other than to suggest eating local and eating more plant foods (foods like peas, beans, potatoes, whole grains, etc are filling, cheap and healthy—and fruits and veggies can be bought more economically if you get them frozen) and less animal foods. And less packaged foods. In the end though, it might just be that if we want good healthy “clean” food and good health we have to shift our priorities and pay more for higher quality. And eat out less. A lot less. Restaurants are notorious for providing terrible nutritional value—it’s super cheap for a restaurant to give out tons of highly processed bread, use excessive amounts of corn oil, etc. I’m sort of rambling, I know…but I don’t really have a clean and simple answer. I wish I did…

  4. You have a great article here. I always thought it would be very difficult to eat healthier but if I follow your tips here it should be rather easy. Fewer is better. I do agree with Eddie’s comment though that the prices of Organic foods or just healthier foods is outrageous, is it any wonder that so many people are over weight when they can’t afford to eat the healthier stuff. I’m sure they don’t all want to be over weight and if the healthier food was more affordably they probably wouldn’t be.

  5. Would it be best to get most of the organic foods you mention in your clean eating blog at a farmers market? Should you worry about pesticides then or do you think that would be an issue? I do think that they would be less expensive at a market than in the stores. That was another question I had, why are the organic vegetables etc. more expensive than the rest? Doesn’t it take less preservatives and thing so technically they would be less expensive to grow right? Just my theory, let me know what you think about farmers market though please. I love the information you have given out in this blog and hope that you will post more.

  6. There are no pre-packaged foods that are good for you so I am glad you gave us some tips to at least get the best of the bad. Your information in this article has been very educational, you hear from all the diet gurus like Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels to read the nutritional label, make sure it is within these guide lines, etc. etc., now they do say to eat organic if at all possible but I don’t think I have ever heard them talk about the ingredients. Now that I have read your article it makes perfect since to me, the less the better. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with your readers and I hope you will continue.

  7. why has it taken me so long to read all these articles?! Ivy-you are a godsend.I ned all the help I can get! like I’ve said,I’m doin good,but I could be doin soooooo much better.

  8. My internist once told me (in response to my queries about “eating well”) “Just don’t eat anything from a box or a can.”
    Well, I thought, easier said than done. But it has turned out to be a not so bad place to start. You are so right Ivy. Read the ingredients. I say if you can’t say it you probably shouldn’t eat it.

  9. Hi I am getting ready to go on vacation and would love some help what is consider clean foods? I know strawberries,all berries, apples and chicken is there anything else I can get like from a restaurant? I really don’t want to get weight watchers to much salt and stuff. If I could have a list of clean foods that would really help Thank You Bonnie M. Riffel [email protected]

    1. Hi Bonnie! Great question!!! And definitely I would recommend NOT getting Weight Watchers (in addition to the salt, the foods are loaded with highly refined, empty calorie/ pro-inflammatory ingredients) But for the most part when you go out to eat you want to ask for extra virgin olive oil as a salad dressing (I make tons of homemade salad dressings, but NEVER eat salad dressing when dining out because I know unless you are at a top notch restaurant they use highly refined/ empty calorie oils for salad dressings), I also always, always ask for extra veggies on the side (just scan the menu for any vegetables and ask for those on the side or on top of your salad), I also always look for beans on the menu (you can ask for a side dish or ask them to add them to your salad.) Baked potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash are also always good—just ask that they be served dry and then add your own EVOO. I also always scan the menu for healthy “whole” fats (avocado, nuts, olives, etc.). Hard boiled eggs are another good one to ask for. And you would be surprised at how many restaurants offer quinoa and farro now too! Those are great whole grains. As for protein—be careful to look for “clean” sources: make sure the beef is grass fed (this is becoming easier to find at good restaurants lately—even Outback now offers some selections grass fed!), look for pasture-raised chicken (which is not easy to find at restaurants) & WILD fish. Wild fish and wild seafood are among your best bets when dining out–but just make sure it is wild. Steer clear of farmed/ Atlantic salmon and tilapia. I also always get a glass of wine (never diet soda!!), Pelligrino or filtered water (avoid tap water, especially when traveling) or coffee before noon/ unsweetened ice tea at lunch time. Hope this helps? I know it’s not a complete list, but maybe it will give you some good ideas? Hope you have a wonderful vacation!! Wish I was going =)

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