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Quick convenience products are undeniably helpful in this time-crunched world. Luckily for those of us trying to eat healthfully, the popularity of "healthy" packaged foods has grown, expanding into almost every food section, from snacks to frozen foods through to canned goods and packaged pastas.

Quick convenience products are undeniably helpful in this time-crunched world. Luckily for those of us trying to eat healthfully, the popularity of "healthy" packaged foods has grown, expanding into almost every food section, from snacks to frozen foods through to canned goods and packaged pastas.

An important consideration before you buy is the amount and type of processing that your food choices undergo. Conventional and whole-food manufacturers generally work with very different sets of principles and practices that ultimately affect the quality of your food.

Most conventional food processors, distributors and retailers see food as a raw material to be shaped into products that meet either real or perceived consumer needs. They want products with a long shelf life, a uniform appearance and flavours that will appeal to a large number of people. As a result, they tend to favour products that contain preservatives, colours and flavour enhancers that are often sweet, salty and/or fatty (always a taste favourite). These ingredients also allow for the use of inferior ingredients by covering up off-flavours and spoilage.

You'll note that nowhere above is nutrition mentioned. Competitive raw material costs, shelf stability and product appeal are considered far more important in most conventional food manufacturing. When these companies get involved in the "natural food sector," they still work from these principles, which can lead to products that are more "sizzle" than "steak."

Conventional food manufacturing involves a number of processes, including heating and acid use that can denature or destroy food components, rendering them less bioavailable or in some cases, as with the hydrogenation of oils and subsequent production of trans fatty acids, resulting in the actual creation of harmful byproducts.

In contrast, the natural-food manufacturers' mission statement is, if you will, to retain as much food value from the original ingredients as possible. Processing is minimized because it's equated with the loss of nutritional content. Food additives are generally avoided because many additives have safety concerns, and certified organic ingredients are favoured because they contain fewer pesticide residues.

Companies such as Eden Foods (full product line), Muir Glen (tomato products), Lundberg Farms (rice products), Nature's Path (cereals and snacks) and Imagine Foods (dairy-free alternatives), to name a few, have produced reliable products for decades, and they're a good starting point if you're unfamiliar with the area. Still, one of the best sources of new and emerging products are often smaller, local whole-food manufacturers; the best way to get to know them is through your health food store.

Checking Labels

What's in a name? Unless it says "certified organic," not much. Words such as "natural" and "healthy" have no legal meaning and are simply marketing catchwords.

Many packaged products on the Canadian market have "Nutrition Information" labels that provide details on fats, carbohydrates, sodium and potassium values and, on occasion, information on vitamin and mineral content. They're good for comparative purposes, but they don't provide much information regarding the quality of ingredients or methods of manufacture.

The ingredients on the label are listed beginning with the most abundant (by weight), followed by the next abundant and so on. Poorer product choices tend to list processed grain products such as bleached white flour, sugar, fructose and hydrogenated oils as major ingredients. The presence of MSG (monosodium glutamate, a popular additive), artificial flavours, colours or preservatives also points to a nutritionally inferior product.

Better quality products tend to use minimally processed ingredients such as whole grains, oils, nuts and the like--in other words, readily identifiable ingredients. Certified organic ingredients have fewer accidental contaminants and give us some faith in the manufacturer's commitment to quality. Another reason to buy certified organic: genetically modified foods cannot be certified as organic according to law.

In summary, when you make that trip down the grocery aisle, be discerning. Read labels and compare. Get to know the manufacturers; ask someone at your local health food store about local brands or lesser known national brands. Look for minimally processed and readily identifiable ingredients. Be wary of food additives, and favour certified organic products.

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