16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

Over the summer, Dustin and I spent many Tuesday nights visiting grocery stores for the Real Food Shopping Series. After visiting the first three stores, Dustin inquired, “How do you know which products are real? Fruits and veggies are a given, but what about milk, eggs, and packaged foods?”

Since we been on this real food journey for a number of years, the act of choosing what to buy and ignore has become innate for me. I don’t really give much thought to products as I know what to look for and what to avoid. Dustin, who doesn’t shop for food, reminded me of a good point with his thought-provoking question: It’s important to know what products and foods to buy, but also the products to avoid. Marketers in this day and age have become quite crafty in the art of advertising food products, knowing that consumers want healthy food. For this reason, many companies use keywords to attract consumers to buy their product.

I like to keep this space positive. I believe there’s enough scary food information out there which leaves many people feeling like all food is bad news. My intention is to provide readers with encouragement and simple steps that lead to a practical real food lifestyle. And while I don’t like to dwell on the bad side of food, I realized after shopping with Dustin, it’s important to know about the ingredients and labels that can easily be avoided to make healthier choices easier to find.

This list contains sixteen food labels or ingredients that I stay far away from when shopping. Sixteen may sound like a restrictive number, but the good news is that every single product or label has a better alternative which you can find in many conventional stores, health food stores, or markets. Many of the ingredients and labels on this list overlap. This list is based off my family’s definition of real food and our effort to avoid processed food products.

Defining Real Food

16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating

1. Ultra-Pasteurized Milk:

While my family enjoys raw milk, I’m not 100% against pasteurization. In fact, I purchase low-temperature pasteurized milk when our raw milk isn’t available and I don’t want to make homemade nut milk. Ultra-pasteurized milk takes pasteurization to a whole new level resulting in a milk with an extended life. Now, I’m not a food scientist, but I know that most real food (that hasn’t been preserved in a specific way) spoils quickly. When milk is ultra-pasteurized, it’s instantly heated to 280F, then instantly cooled. The result is a milk that can sit on store shelves for months without refrigeration or spoiling. Regular pasteurization heats milk to about 162F for fifteen seconds. Ultra-pasteurization changes the taste and texture of milk, and in my opinion, results in dead milk with very little value. Organic milk is commonly ultra-pasteurized; however, some companies offers a pasteurized alternative.

Alternative: If raw milk is legally available in your state and you can find a clean farm with grass-fed cows (definitely ask for a farm tour and information about safety practices and testing), purchasing raw milk is a great option. If raw milk or a clean source aren’t available in your area, look for milk from grass-fed cows (or goats or sheep) that’s pasteurized with cream on top. This usually means the milk hasn’t been homogenized or ultra-pasteurized. Organic Valley sells a grass-fed milk that fits this criteria, along with Natural By Nature. Homemade nut milk is another great alternative.

Note: In the image below, the milk was labeled “UHT” (ultra-high temperature processing) on the front of the box.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Added Processed Sugar, Artificial Sweeteners:

I like to keep our food as basic and minimially-processed as possible. This means sticking with sugar that’s naturally occurring or minimally processed: raw honey, pure maple syrup, sucanat, and coconut sugar. Sugars that are highly processed are avoided when shopping. It’s important to read packages as many foods contain hidden sugar. Dried fruit is a perfect example of a food that often contains large amounts of white sugar…why does fruit need more sugar?

Alternatives: Read product labels! Look for food without corn syrup, added sugar, or any kind of artificial sweeteners. Look for minimally-processed sweetener choices. Read more about Real Food Sweeteners 101, here.

3. Carrageenan:

Carrageenan is a highly debated product. It’s usually added to ultra-pasteurized dairy since this process strips dairy of its creamy texture. Carrageenan can be harmful if regularly consumed in large amounts, which isn’t too hard when this product is added to many ultra-pasteurized dairy products. You can read more about carrageenan in this article from Wellness Mama. For this reason, I’m not concerned about occasional consumption (for example: at a dinner party), but I choose to avoid this product.

Alternatives: Read ingredient labels. Look for products without carrageenan. For example: Store-bought almond milk usually contains carrageenan, except Silk brand.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

4. Canola, Vegetable, or Soybean Oil:

Contrary to modern day advertising propaganda, canola oil is not heart-healthy or real food. Canola oil is made from the rapeseed which in the past was only used for industrial purposes due to a high amount of erucic acid (a heart-damaging acid in rat studies). With a little tweaking and genetic modification the oil was introduced to the public under a new name “canola oil” (formerly known as rapeseed oil).

Vegetable oil does not contain healthy vegetables. Vegetable oil is obtained through the extraction of rapeseed, sunflower, corn, soy, safflower, and others. Vegetable oil is high in Omega-6 which in excess can have health consequences. Conventional corn and soy are genetically modified in the US and are major players in the making of this oil, along with chemicals and additives.

Alternatives: Real food substitutions include: butter, olive oil, avocado oil, lard (not Crisco, real lard), and coconut oil.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

5. Low-Fat or Fat-Free Products:

During the Fat-Free Age companies decided to strip products (particularly dairy products) of flavorful fat and add sugar, artificial flavoring, and carrageenan for texture. Anytime you see the words “low-fat” or “fat-free” used to describe a product, run!

Alternatives: For natural products (such as dairy), purchase full-fat food. For other products, always read the ingredient labels.

6. Added Ingredients to Dairy Products:

Many dairy products are stripped of fat to appeal to fat-conscious consumers. Since most of us are accustomed to sweets and flavors, many dairy products also contain added sugars or flavorings (strawberry and banana yogurt or chocolate milk). Canola oil is an example of an added ingredient often times added to butter to make it “healthier” and cheaper.

Alternatives: Read ingredient labels! Always look for minimally-processed dairy that’s full-fat vs. fat-free (think: added ingredients to compensate for the taste and texture of the naturally-occurring fat). Purchase plain whole milk yogurt, and add fruit for flavoring.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

7. Flavorings:

I avoid artificial flavorings and most “natural” flavorings. Take a look at the granola bar section. If a granola bar claims to contain blueberries, most of the time it’s nothing more an artificial flavoring. There are many ways to flavor food, so artificially-derived flavorings really aren’t necessary.

Alternatives: Purchase real ingredients (oats, flour, minimally-processed sugar, blueberries) versus packaged food that usually contains artificial ingredients. If you need a packaged product, always read ingredient labels!
Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

8. Too Many Ingredients:

Many companies want to claim or highlight specific ingredients on the front of a food package; however, the proof is always on the ingredient label. Think about the ingredients on the label and ask yourself, “Would I use these ingredients to make this product?” If the list just goes on and on, or requires an advanced degree in language and science, put the “food” down.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. A decent store-bought granola may contain up to 10 ingredients, since granola may contain nuts, seeds, oats, a sweetener, various dried fruit, etc.

Alternatives: Purchase food with a minimal amount of ingredients, or stick to purchasing ingredients versus ready-made products.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

9. All Vegetarian-Fed Eggs:

This label usually means hens spent little to no time outside. Vegetarian-fed chickens receive feed that’s free of animal by-products. Chickens are not vegetarians; they love bugs!

Alternatives: Purchase eggs from pastured or free-range hens without the “100% vegetarian-fed” label. I like Vital Farms brand. Even better, purchase pastured eggs (not pasteurized) from a local farm or market vendor. Note: Free-range chickens are required outdoor access, but the actual amount of time is not clear. Free-range chickens can also be supplemented with GMO corn and soy. There are no regulations for “free-range” eggs. Cage-free eggs come from chickens that are uncaged, but don’t usually have access to the outdoors or natural food (bugs, seeds, etc.).

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

10. The Word “Healthy”:

Even after eating real food for many years, I’m easily swayed by the word “healthy” on a box or bag. There’s truly something magical about that word. My biggest advice is to avoid packaged foods that want to proclaim the “healthy” qualities of the product inside with that magical little marketing word.

Alternatives: Always read the actual ingredient list. Never believe a food is “healthy” just because a label wants you to believe so.

11. “Natural” or Conventional Meat:

Natural labels can easily trick shoppers into believing the food is pure, clean, and even organic. “All natural” means food does not contain any artificial colors, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients (although meat usually doesn’t contain any of these). Natural or conventional meat is usually fed heavy amounts of corn, soy, grain, and other by-products. Natural and conventional animals are usually raised in large feedlots or hen houses versus on pasture.

Alternatives: Look for meat labeled “grass-fed” or “pastured.” While these labels have come into question (as they become more popular terms), these labels actually tell you how the animal has been raised and fed. I often call companies and ask about their animal practices if a product isn’t labeled, but looks promising (not one of the mega meat producing giants).

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

12. Artificial Food Dye: 

I believe many consumers are beginning to question the use of food dyes in our food supply, particularly their effects on mood and behavior in children. We naturally avoid most of the products that contain food dyes due to their processed nature.

Alternatives: Read ingredient labels! When I need food dye for a birthday treat or Christmas baking, I use plant-derived dye from India Tree.

13. Farm-Raised Seafood:

According to Food and Water Watch, “Studies indicate that farm-raised fish contain higher levels of chemical pollutants than wild fish, including PCBs, which are known carcinogens. This is due to higher concentrations in the fish feed. Antibiotics are also a problem with farm-raised fish, effecting consumers directly as well as by developing super strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, making diseases less treatable, and perpetuates the cycle of increased antibiotic use.” (source)

Alternatives: Purchase seafood that’s been raised in the wild. Due to the rise in farmed fish many stores label wild fish as “wild-caught.” In the shopping series I found many stores carry wild-caught seafood whether in the freezer section or fresh.

14. Imitation Anything:

Expensive products (for example: vanilla extract and maple syrup) often times have imitation alternatives. These products are cheaper because they’re made with cheap (nutritionally-void) ingredients usually formulated in a plant versus made from a plant.

Alternatives: Avoid the word “imitation” when purchasing flavorings, such as: vanilla or almond extract. Avoid purchasing margarine, the imitation of real butter. Look for real maple syrup (one ingredient!) versus pancake syrup.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

15. Soy Lecithin:

I don’t believe soy lecithin is harmful when consumed in very small quantities, as you’ll find in chocolate. That being said, I try avoid purchasing food that uses non-organic soy lecithin due to the way it’s made and the GMO concern. You can learn more about this ingredient from Chris Kresser.

Alternatives: Look for chocolate products (soy lecithin is usually used to make chocolate chips and chocolate bars) without this ingredient, or one that uses organic soy lecithin. I love Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips.

16. Kid Food:

I’m not a huge fan of food marketed in a restaurant or a store as “kid-friendly.” It’s always bothered me that most kid-friendly foods contain food dyes, a ton of refined sugar, and loads of additives. I’m not opposed to kids enjoying fun food, but I don’t believe kids need special foods formulated with fake ingredients.

Alternatives: Staying away from kid food can be difficult if you have young children and just started enjoying a real food lifestyle. Companies know how to draw kids’ attention: colorful boxes, cartoon characters, the promise of a toy. At first, leaving the kids behind (of course, please leave them with a responsible adult) may be the best option if you’re shopping at a conventional store. Also, talk to your kids about real food versus fake food–kids need to know about food in order to make informed choices. Finally, start making favorite “kid food” at home: homemade chicken nuggets, fruit-flavored yogurt, popsicles, cookies, and ice cream.

Whether you are just starting your real food journey or have been on the road for a while, this list of 16 Food Products and Labels to Avoid Eating will help keep you on the real food path!

I know that was a long list and you may feel a bit overwhelmed (Isn’t it amazing how complicated our food system has become today?), so let’s simplify this list with three take away lessons.

3 Food Lessons to Take Away

1. Read labels. Read labels on food that contains an ingredients list. Always ask, “Would I use these ingredients in my kitchen?”

2. Be an informed consumer. Question everything! Get to know the companies who are committed to cleaner food. This takes time at first, but the more you shop as an informed consumer, the more innate purchasing real food products will become.  You can find shopping lists to get you started for nine stores in the United States, here.

3. Stick to ingredients versus packaged foods. Homemade food tastes better than the packaged alternative and you don’t have to worry about reading labels.

Shopping for Real Food at Target

More Real Food You May Like:

Foods to stop buying and start making

7 Kitchen Staples to Stop Buying and Start Making

Homemade salad dressings you can make instead of buy! Simple real food recipes for 10 salad dressings!

10 Salad Dressings to Stop Buying and Start Making

Shopping for real food at Costco

Shopping for Real Food at Costco: My Top Picks

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18 Comments

  • Okay, I know I’ve commented on a lot of your posts lately and it looks like I’m stalking you, but…I was wondering what I should fry in. I’m southern, (I live in FL, too, actually just past Jacksonville) so I fry my food occasionally. I was using canola oil, but obviously I don’t want to now, especially because my husband and I both have heart issues. Should I just fry in the lard? Is peanut oil okay to use? I know it’s crazy expensive but it seems be recommended a lot. I know you can fry in olive and coconut oil, but I don’t think I would make gravy from those. Thanks for you help!

  • Kristin I am having the most ridiculously hard time finding good chicken. I can find organic, I can find free range vegetarian fed, I CANNOT find anything where the chicken are raised on grass and eating bugs. Even my Trader Joes only sells vegetarian fed! Where do you find yours? Thanks for the recommendation on the eggs-they are equally hard to find!

    Thanks!

    • Hey Brandi, I totally feel your pain! I have a VERY VERY VERY hard time finding pastured-raised chickens or eggs in our area. I usually go with the “best I can find” mentality. There are times when I’ll settle with the organic vegetarian-fed chicken due to price and availability. Nature’s Food Patch, a local health food store in Clearwater, recently started selling local pastured chicken from a farm. I stock up on this chicken when it’s on sale ($4.25/lb vs. $5.25/lb). I’ve been told by farmers in my area that meat chickens are hard to raise, expensive, and really dirty! I wonder if these reasons make finding pastured chicken so difficult. Browsing out eatwild.com or localharvest.org may be a good start. I believe Whole Foods sells organic “free-range” birds.

  • I to live in Florida….close to Leah (mentioned above) I don’t fry my chicken in any oil, I just throw it in the crockpot….make rice and steamed veggies in my rice maker….the chicken is very good that way….I Love your website and found you on Pinterest….we raised 4 baby chickens and 3 of them are laying now, we really enjoy them girls and their eggs….Take Care

  • Hello! I have really discovered the real food movement about a couple of months ago. I have a hard time finding products at the grocery store that I can trust. For example, I want to make a vegetable lasagna this week. Sounds perfect right? well, our local grocery store doesn’t carry any decent ricotta cheese that doesn’t have a zillion additives. Or any organic lasagna noodles. Does that mean that I nix that idea after I already have all the veggies in my cart and spent all that time and energy putting that recipe on the menu? how do you approach this problem? I don’t have a whole foods or similar store close, and I just don’t have the time to drive to one each week.

    • Hey Shannon, I usually try to look for the best products I can find at that point (the product with the least amount of ingredients or the least harmful); or I think about a way to modify the recipe (for example: use a cleaner cottage cheese vs. the limited ricotta choices). Over the years, I’ve taken mental notes of what I can find and what’s not available at the stores I shop at in our area. When I meal plan, I try to take into account the clean ingredients/products available, and plan accordingly.

      The shopping series and lists may also be helpful: http://livesimply.me/category/real-food-basics/

  • This is an awesome list Kristin! I agree with every point you made. It takes practice to go grocery shopping. I remember when I first started real food shopping it would take us FOREVER! We had to figure out what were the good products, the best prices, and where to get some of the products. Now we have it down to a science. We’re going to be moving in the next year or so and I keep thinking how I’ll have to find new places to get some of my stuff.

  • Great list! One way we talk about food in our home is using the term “grow food”. Rather than terms that have a moral obligation, like good/bad, healthy/unhealthy we talk about foods that are best at helping us grow strong. It is very unfortunate how much education you really need just to go to the grocery store. Here in Canada, it isn’t any different. You literally have to “source” food. Think about that! I have spent countless hours researching and sourcing meats, flours, dairy products etc. And then add more time for price comparison! It’s exhausting, but when I see how my daughter is thriving on full fat, local, real organic food I know it’s worth it. I just hope it gets easier for all of us! Because we really all do deserve more from our governments and food companies. But the full fat thing is still hilarious. You wouldn’t believe how much people think 3.5% milk fat would put them on the brink of obesity. 🙂

  • I’ve seen your comments about avoiding ultra-pasteurized milk on several other posts, and finally managed to find this post explaining why you’re not a huge supporter. I was just curious, as a single person who doesn’t drink milk (both because of taste and lactose issues) and only really keeps it around for cooking/baking … do you have any suggestions on alternatives to the ultra-pasteurized? I started buying it because of the longer shelf life, because I could rarely get through a carton before it spoiled. I was wasting so much milk. I’ve tried a variety of other options:

    – evaporated (unfavorably changed how things cook and bake, left me with weird leftover amounts when I only need a little bit but had to open the whole can)
    – powdered (not the best flavor and you can tell in the final product that the flavor just isn’t what it should be)
    – frozen (again, not the best flavor, and I found it irritating when I had the sudden urge to bake something only to discover I need some of the frozen milk that I now have to thaw)

    I suppose I could just try and plan for when I would need milk and only buy small containers when I know I’ll need it, but being honest, I never know when I’m going to need it. Even with the meal plans I do, which I do love and try to follow as best I can, I still find myself in sudden need of a tablespoon or two of milk now and then, only to find that I either have none or that my entire carton has gone off. This even happens occasionally with the ultra-pasteurized that I keep on hand, which is even more frustrating as it’s more expensive. It doesn’t happen near as often as it would with regular milk, but it has still happened more than once.

    So I guess my super long question boils down to asking for any suggestions or tips for the best way for a single non-milk-drinking individual to actually be able to keep some milk around. 🙂

    • Hey Krystal,

      Thank you for reaching out about this subject. I totally understand what you mean about not needing a full container of milk, and yet wanting something that will last a while. If the milk is being used for high temperature cooking, just to moisten/add liquid ingredients to a baked good or cooking recipe, then I’d purchase the ultra-pasteurized milk. Yes, it’s not going to provide any nutritional benefits, but it will serve its purpose: an ingredient used for a “greater good.” I personally would rather see someone making meals/baked goods at home versus feeling bad or defeated about that ingredient. Another really great option is to make cashew milk. This is a dairy-free milk that you can make in just 5 minutes, on the spot. You don’t need to soak the cashews in advance, and the flavor of cashew milk is super mild. It’s an awesome substitute for cow’s milk. It will keep in the fridge for about 7-10 days. My recipe makes 4 cups, but you could reduce the ratios to create a very small jar. Hope that helps :). Recipe: http://livesimply.me/2016/05/17/make-creamy-cashew-milk-dairy-free-milk-coffee-creamer/.

  • Hi Kristin, Thank you for this post. It is very informative to say the least. I do have a question, however. I don’t purchase whole milk of any kind due to lactose intolerance. And even with that we only purchase the fat free or 2 percent version due to nausea from whole milk in the past. We’re not really milk drinkers but we do use it in oatmeal and for baking. I checked the ingredients and there wasn’t any carrageenan in it. There also didn’t seem to be anything weird in it although it isn’t organic. Do you have any suggestions for a better milk option for a lactose intolerant family? Thanks

    • Hey Jessica, I’m so glad the post was helpful!

      Honestly, If there’s nothing added then I would keep the 2%–especially since it’s only be consumed in baking and oatmeal. Another option would be to make something like cashew milk or almond milk, but those won’t give you the same taste as dairy milk for something like oatmeal.

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