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One of the simplest ways to eat more nutritiously is simply to use less packaged food. Packaged foods contain ingredients that keep them “shelf stable,” manipulate their color and texture, and other goals that are interesting from a chemistry perspective but don’t contribute anything to our nutrition.

Many packaged foods have their basic ingredients manipulated, too, as when they are formulated to be “low fat” (which often goes hand in hand with added sugar or salt – or both) or are refined, a process that strips away fiber – an important contributor gastrointestinal health. Be especially skeptical of health claims on packaged foods. The US government is very lax with manufacturers about putting health claims on their packaging – Red Vines, for example, which are clearly candy, proclaim that they are a “fat-free food,” as if this is a good thing, even though that makes them a riskier choice of treat rather than a wiser one. (It’s often hard to stop eating fat-free sugary foods, whereas foods with fats in them leave you feeling full sooner.)

Packaged foods are convenient, of course, so it’s important to read labels so you know what you’re getting. Rice Chex seem healthier than Lucky Charms, but are strangely close in total calories, and Lucky Charms have more fiber. This doesn’t mean that Lucky Charms (and their marshmallows) are a good choice – just that you should not assume that a cereal that isn’t coated in sugar is necessarily nutritious.

Cereal Killers, a series of parody illustrations of cereal boxes, shown here on a grocery shelf.

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