Category Archives: Grocery Store Spotlights

GSS: Yogurt Shopping 101

Hello!  It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Grocery Store Spotlight, so I thought it was time for another one.  This time I’m taking a stroll down the yogurt aisle to help you identify the good, the bad and the down right ugly choices out there.

Yogurt can make a great dessert or mid-morning snack and it’s easy to throw in your child’s lunch box, but many people are overwhelmed by all the options in the store.  There are so many varieties to choose from, like fat-free, sugar-free, high-fiber, organic, vitamin D fortified, high-calcium, and the list goes on.  All brands are clearly not alike, so I did a little investigating to find the best options for your family.  Of course I can’t dissect every brand and variety out there, but hopefully I can help you figure out what to look for in a yogurt and convince you to switch if you’re choosing an unhealthy brand.

Look at all these brands. No wonder choosing a yogurt is so exhausting!

When I check out the nutritional label on a container of yogurt, I first look for two things.  What is it sweetened with, and how much protein is in it?  If I see the words Sucralose (Splenda), Aspartame or High-Fructose Corn Syrup in the ingredient list, it’s a deal breaker!  If it’s sweetened with fruit, stevia, honey, maple syrup or organic sugar, it passes!  If I don’t see a substantial amount of protein, I don’t see the point of eating the yogurt in the first place, because it’s just going to spike my sugar level and I’ll be hungry 30 minutes later.  Next I scan the ingredient list for any other words I don’t like (such as modified corn starch and food dyes) or just can’t pronounce.

So with all that in mind, let’s look at some of the most popular yogurt brands on the market.

Yoplait Original French Vanilla – It may be labeled 99% fat free, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  With tons of sugar (26 grams in one container!) and only 5 grams of protein, this stuff is sure to send you on a sugar roller coaster.

Ingredients: Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Nonfat Milk, Tricalcium Phosphate, Kosher Gelatin, Natural Flavor, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Acetate, Colored with Annatto and Turmeric Extract, Vitamin D3.

Yoplait Light Fat Free Strawberry – Unfortunately, the fat-free variety is even worse than the original when it comes to nutritional value.  I’m sure there are so many people who reach for the fat-free, not knowing that cutting the fat and calories means adding more harmful ingredients.  Although it contains less sugar (14 grams) than the original variety thanks to the added High Fructose Corn Syrup and Aspartame, this brand still contains just 5 grams of protein.

Ingredients:  Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Nonfat Milk, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Strawberries, Modified Corn Starch, Nonfat Milk, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Aspartame, Potassium Sorbate, Natural Flavor, Red #40, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.

Would you like some yogurt with your High Fructose Corn Syrup, Aspartame, Red Dye and Modified Corn Starch?

Weight Watchers Berries and Cream – For any of you readers who are on the Weight Watchers diet plan or just like to buy their food (I’ve been there!), just know that while they are low in fat and calories, many of their packaged foods contain artificial sweeteners and harmful preservatives.  Two WW points gets you 11 grams of sugar, 6 grams of protein, two types of dyes and several other unhealthy additives.

Ingredients:  Skim Milk, Crystalline Fructose, Blackberry Puree, Raspberry Puree, Black Raspberry Puree, Boysenberry Puree, Natural Berries and Cream Flavor, Modified Corn Starch, Inulin Fiber, Whey Protein Concentrate, Kosher Gelatin, Sucralose, Citric Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, Red 40, Blue 1, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Citrate, Vitamin A Palminate, Vitamin D3.

Look at more than just the amount of fat and calories in your food!

Dannon Fruit on the Bottom BlueberryUnfortunately, this is a different brand with the same story.  With 25 grams of sugar, 6 grams of protein and lots of artificial ingredients, Dannon doesn’t make the grade either.

Ingredients: Cultured Grade A Lowfat Milk, Blueberries, Sugar, Fructose Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Fructose, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Starch, Pectin, Kosher Gelatin, Malic Acid, Natural Flavor, Disodium Phosphate, Tricalcium Phosphate, Carmine.

Dannon Activia Vanilla – I know Dannon likes to boast about all the probiotics in their yogurt, but they fail to mention all the other additives!  And with only 4 grams of protein in a serving, this brand doesn’t pack a lot of nutritional punch.

Ingredients:  Cultured Grade A Reduced Fat Milk, Sugar, Water, Fructose, Modified Food Starch, Milk Protein Concentrate, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Vanilla Flavor, Kosher Gelatin, Agar Agar, Guar Gum, Lactic Acid, Calcium Lactate, Vitamin D3, Sodium Citrate.

Yoplait Trix YogurtUnfortunately, the yogurts marketed for kids are some of the worst ones out there, and usually the ones with the most sugar, preservatives and added dyes.  Take the Trix yogurt for example, just because it has a friendly looking bunny on it doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for your little ones!  Trix markets this product with the slogans,”Two Fruity colors in every cup!” and “Twice the color means twice the fun!” Even though your kids may beg for them because of the cartoon characters on the packaging, stay away from all the colorful yogurts ridden with dyes and other junk.  Some brands are worse than others, so read the labels!

Ingredients: Cultured Pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Modified Corn Starch, Kosher Gelatin, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate Added to Maintain Freshness, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Red #40, Blue #1, Vitamin A Acetate, Vitamin D3.

The slogan should be "Twice the color means twice the harmful dyes!"

Stonyfield Organic Strawberry – This brand has a few things going for it, like the fact that it’s USDA Certified Organic, and it doesn’t contain any dyes (colored with beets!) or preservatives.  It’s also sweetened with the real deal (20 grams from organic strawberries and organic sugar) instead of the artificial stuff.  It only contains 6 grams of protein in a container, so it’s not going to hold you over all that long, but it might make a great addition to a healthy lunch.  You could also add some high-quality nuts or granola to it to boost the protein and keep your sugars from soaring.

Ingredients: Cultured Pasteurized Organic Lowfat Milk, Organic Strawberries, Naturally Milled Organic Sugar, Pectin, Organic Beet Juice Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Vitamin D3, Six Live Active Cultures.

Stonyfield YoKids Strawberry and Banana – This is a great option to serve your kids.  All the Stonyfield kids yogurts are made with pure organic ingredients and don’t contain fillers, gelatin, dyes, preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup like you’ll find in other kids’ yogurts.

Ingredients: Cultured Pasteurized Organic Lowfat Milk, Naturally Milled Organic Sugar, Organic Strawberry Juice, Natural Flavor, Organic Beet Juice Concentrate, Pectin, Vitamin D3, Six Live Active Cultures.

Stonyfield makes several yogurt varieties geared to kids of all ages.

Brown Cow – Here is another excellent choice!  All Brown Cow yogurt varieties contain only natural ingredients, like  milk without artificial growth hormones, fresh fruit, pure maple syrup, honey, real vanilla, coffee and cocoa and no preservatives, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners or refined sugar.  The only downside I can think of for this company is that some of their yogurt varieties are more like desserts than a light snack.  For example, the Cream Top Blueberry variety is sweetened with maple syrup, honey, evaporated cane juice and blueberries, so it has 6 grams of fat, 180 calories and 24 grams of sugar.  You could probably have  small serving of ice cream for that!  Brown Cow’s Greek, Nonfat and Lowfat options are a little lighter and might make a better snack choice.   Like with the Stonyfield varieties, Brown Cow’s yogurts aren’t very high in protein, so you may need to add protein to it or eat it as part of a high-protein meal to keep your sugars from skyrocketing.

Greek Yogurt

Now that we’ve compared some of the most popular brands of regular yogurt, we need to talk about the Greek varieties.  Greek yogurt has been getting a great deal of attention in the last couple years.  Many people know it’s good for them, but they don’t really know why.  The answer is that most Greek yogurt varieties have more than double the protein of regular yogurt, so they will keep you fuller longer and will keep your sugars from spiking.

Greek yogurt is strained to remove excess liquid, which is why it’s thicker and creamier than traditional yogurt (YUM!).  The straining process allows the whey protein to remain intact.  Our bodies need 20 different types of amino acids for proper growth and muscle development, but we can only make 11 of these. The remaining nine, called essential amino acids, must come from food sources like whey protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids.  In fact, whey protein contains more essential amino acids than any other type of protein.

My favorite brands of Greek yogurt are Stonyfield Oikos (15 grams of protein in the vanilla) and Chobani (16 grams of protein in the vanilla).  I buy the Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt in a pinch, although it’s not quite as high in protein.  Some of the store-brand Greek yogurts aren’t as beneficial and still sneak in some fructose and preservatives (Like Dannon’s Greek variety!), so I’d rather stick to the high-quality brands.

This brand is usually found in the natural section of your grocery store.

As with other Spotlights I’ve done, the best products are the most expensive, but I think it’s worth it to pay more for the good stuff!  (At Kroger, the Yoplait was $.60 per container while the Oikos was $1.99 and the Chobani was $1.19).  As a general rule, you’ll usually find much healthier choices in the natural section of your grocery store, where the Stonyfield Farms, Brown Cow and other high-quality brands are stored, or at places like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.  The natural brands also use the non-rBgh milk and you just don’t see all those unnecessary ingredients (the words you can’t pronounce) on their labels.  If you don’t do well on dairy products, try coconut yogurt (So Delicious makes tasty, all-natural varieties.).

I hope you learned as much from this post as I did from writing it.  If you’ve never tried Greek yogurt, I encourage you to give it a try, or at least switch to a more natural brand if you regularly buy Dannon or Yoplait.  If you have questions about another brand not mentioned here or about yogurt in general, leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to research it for you.

Got an idea for a future Grocery Store Spotlight?  Send it my way!

Grocery Store Spotlight: Navigating the Baking Aisle

We’ve all been in a situation where we needed a quick dessert in a pinch.  Maybe you’ve gotten into bed and realized that you were supposed to bring cupcakes for your child’s class party the next morning, or you remember it’s a friend’s birthday at work.  Or, perhaps you just didn’t have time to do anything elaborate for the neighborhood potluck.  Unless you thought ahead and ordered something from the bakery, you find yourself in the baking aisle at the grocery store, desperately searching for a quick and easy treat that might even fool people into thinking that you’ve got it all together and made something from scratch!  (No judgment, I’m a domestic goddess in training myself!)

Let's face it, sometimes a box of brownie or cake mix is the best we can do!

But have you ever looked at the contents some of those brownie and cake mixes?  Well I have, and they are full of unhealthy ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavoring, modified starches, dyes and a bunch of words I can’t pronounce!

For example, here’s a look at the ingredients in a box of Betty Crocker Super Moist Yellow Cake Mix:

Enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar, corn syrup, leavening, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, modified corn starch, corn starch, salt, propylene glycol mono and diesters of fatty acids, dextrose, dicalcium phosphate, distilled monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl lactylate, natural and artificial flavors, xanthum gum, yellow 5 and yellow 6.

Think twice before you grab the Betty Crocker box brands.

And here are the ingredients in the Duncan Hines Caramel Turtle Brownie Mix:

MIX: Sugar, Bleached Wheat Flour (Wheat Flour [Enriched with Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Malted Barley Flour), Cocoa Powder Processed with Alkali, Walnuts (Nuts, Corn Oil, BHT Added to Protect Flavor), Vegetable Oil Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil), Wheat Starch, Dextrose, Salt, Cornstarch, Artificial Flavor, Carrageenan, Leavening (Sodium Bicarbonate). CARAMEL TOPPING: Corn Syrup, Water, Dextrose, Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Natural and Artificial Flavors [Milk], Salt, Phosphoric Acid, Caramel Color, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Sodium Citrate, Colored with (Yellow 5, Red 40, Titanium Dioxide).

And surely that sweet little dough boy wouldn’t put anything harmful in his products. 

Let’s see what’s really in Pillsbury’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough:

Enriched Flour Bleached (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Semisweet Chocolate Chips (Sugar, Chocolate Liquor, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Salt, Milk), Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil, Water, Molasses, Eggs, Salt, Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Natural and Artificial Flavor.

He's not as sweet as he looks!

Here are the contents of Ghirardelli’s Double Chocolate Brownie Mix:

Sugar, enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folate), chocolate chips (sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, vanilla), partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oils, natural cocoa, wheat starch, cocoa (processed with alkali), salt, artificial flavor, sodium bicarbonate, natural butter flavor.

So maybe you think you can find better-quality products if you head over to the frozen section and grab a pie or cake there.  Think again.

These are the ingredients in the Sara Lee German Chocolate Layer Cake, the biggest doozie of them all!

Water, sugar, skim milk, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut, soybean and/or cottonseed and palm kernel oils), enriched bleached flour (wheat flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), eggs, corn syrup, whey protein concentrate, vegetable oil (soybean and/or cottonseed oils), cream, maltodextrin, walnuts, butter, coconut, cocoa processed with alkali, mono- and diglycerides, milk protein concentrate, almonds, propylene glycol ester, modified corn starch, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, salt, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, corn starch, monocalcium phosphate), acetic acid esters of mono-diglycerides, lactose (milk), xanthan gum, natural flavor, cellulose gum, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin, sodium citrate, disodium phosphate, colored with (beta carotene, caramel color, and annatto extract), carob bean gum, guar gum, soy flour.

I checked it out, and all the Sara Lee cakes and full of harmful ingredients.

Ok, so right about now you might be despairing that I’m declaring all the mainstream brands you’ve been buying for years to be unsuitable.  But don’t fret, there are some healthier options out there for those of you who don’t have the time or desire to bake everything from scratch.

Look for the Dr. Oetker Organics brand, found in the natural section of your grocery store.  Their products are all USDA Certified Organic and don’t contain all the junk.  They make brownie, cake, cookie, pancake, icing, pudding and other mixes.  I baked a batch of the chocolate brownies the other night to make sure they didn’t taste gross (The things I do for the sake of research!), and they were delightful.  I don’t think anybody would be able to tell that they were any different from the popular brands.   There were 5 ingredients in the brownies I made:

Organic Cane Sugar, Organic Enriched Wheat Flour, Organic Cocoa, Salt and Baking Soda

Now that’s an ingredient list I can feel better about eating and feeding to my friends and family.  When it comes to cookie dough, I like the Immaculate Baking Company products, found in the natural section of the grocery store as well as health food markets.

This company uses real, organic ingredients and there are no syrups, dyes or hydrogenated oils in sight!

Another brand that I’ve purchased but haven’t tried out yet is Cherrybrook Kitchen.  This might be a great brand for you to try if you’re often baking for people with gluten and dairy sensitivities.

So, it turns out the secret to conquering the baking aisle is to avoid it all together!  The healthiest brands are often found in the natural section of your regular grocery store or at health food or specialty markets (Trader Joe’s provides some great, affordable options.).  There are so many choices out there, so as always, read labels closely and find the brand with the fewest ingredients (that you can pronounce!).  You might want to stock up so you always have something on hand in an emergency!

Alright, so we may not bake like Martha Stewart, but we can raise the bar on the store-bought desserts we serve to the people we love!  Next time you need cupcakes, cookies or brownies in a hurry, avoid the Pillsbury, Sara Lee, Duncan Hines, Ghirardelli and Sara Lee brands in the baking aisle and frozen section and reach for healthier alternatives.  Yes, they will probably cost a bit more, but I think it’s worth it to save yourself dozens of unnecessary, damaging ingredients.

GSS: Are You Soup Savvy?

For many of us, canned soup is a staple in our regular diet.  A can of soup is  a comforting, cheap and easy on-the-go lunch or dinner,  and it’s healthy right?  Well, I’m going to find out!

Although many of the major soup companies advertise their health benefits (Light, 30% Less Sodium, Only 2 WW Points, etc.), their nutritional labels tell a different story.  Let’s have a look-see at some of the most popular brands and see how they stack up, shall we?

(As you know, each brand carries several flavors and varieties, so to keep things simple and fair, I’m comparing the basic chicken noodle variety from each company to give you an idea of the ingredients they use, but make sure you always read the labels yourself when buying any canned or packaged item.  And don’t just look at the fat grams and calories…read those ingredient lists people!)

Progresso Traditional Chicken Noodle – Take a look at all those ingredients!  I don’t know about you, but I don’t even recognize some of these words, and there are several things I don’t like, such as several forms of MSG and the modified corn starch.

Ingredients: Chicken Broth, Carrots, Cooked White Chicken Meat, Egg Noodle (Wheat Flour, Semolina Wheat, Egg), Celery, Modified Food Starch, Water, Chicken Fat, Salt, Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Egg White, Potassium Chloride, Carrot Puree, Yeast Extract, Sugar, Soy Protein Isolate, Maltodextrin, Sodium Phosphate, Chives, Natural Flavor, Parsley, Garlic Powder, Egg Yolk, Onion Powder, Spice, Beta Carotene

Sorry Progresso lovers, but I can't give this brand my seal of approval!

Campbell’s Creamy Chicken Noodle – I’m afraid this nutrition label tells an even scarier story!  More MSG and modified starch, with a little corn syrup solids and other words I can’t pronounce thrown in for fun!  

Ingredients: Chicken Stock, Enriched Egg Noodles (Wheat Flour, Eggs, Egg Whites, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin and Folic Acid), Vegetable Oil, Modified Food Starch, Carrots, Cream, Chicken Meat, Salt, Mechanically Separated Chicken, Whey, Monosodium Gluatamate, Soy Protein Concentrate, Chicken Flavor, Corn Syrup Solids, Beta Carotene, Calcium Caseinate, Guar Gum, Yeast Extract, Flavoring, Xanthum Gum, Dehydrated Chicken Broth, Sodium Phosphate, Soy Protein Isolate, Dehydrated Chicken and Chicken Fat.

Campbell's also makes the Chunky and Select Harvest line of soups, so they control the bulk of the soup options found in most stores.

Healthy Choice Chicken Noodle – Different brand, same story!  I just love a little Disodium Inosinate and Guanylate in my soup, don’t you?  I’ve been researching a few of these ingredients that I can’t pronounce, and many of them boil down to MSG (Autolyzed Yeast Extract and Spice for example) and other preservatives or artificial sweeteners.  Are all these chemicals really necessary in a little chicken soup?

Ingredients: Chicken Broth, Carrots, Chicken Breast with Rib Meat, Celery, Enriched Egg Noodles (Durum Wheat Flour, Water, Whole Egg Solids, Egg White Solids, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Modified Corn Starch, Flavors, Salt, Maltodextrin, Turkey Broth, Rendered Chicken Fat, Modified Rice Starch, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Isolated Soy Protein, Chicken, Potassium Chloride, Disodium Inosinate and Guanylate, Spice, Sodium Phosphate, Mushroom Powder, Cottonseed Oil, Citric Acid, Turmeric, Beta Carotene.

Turns out it's not so healthy of a choice!

Muir Glen Organic Chicken Noodle – This is the clear winner when it comes to the canned soups I compared.  Just as with the Muir Glen spaghetti sauce, it costs a little more, but it’s worth it when you see that it’s all organic, the chicken is antibiotic and hormone free, it contains real cane juice instead of refined sugar, corn syrup or an artificial sweetener, and it’s MSG free.  You can find it as well as a few other good organic brands in the natural section of your grocery store.

Ingredients: Chicken broth (water, chicken stock, sea salt), carrots, cooked chicken meat, egg noodles, celery, water, sea salt, corn starch, natural chicken flavor, chicken fat, onion powder, soy protein concentrate, egg white powder, onion, black pepper, garlic powder, chives, yeast extract, cane juice, parsley flakes, turmeric, natural flavor, tomato paste, thyme, rosemary, carrot powder, potato flour and canola oil.

Of course this brand is nowhere near as beneficial as making a homemade soup, but at least we can pronounce all of its ingredients!

It’s the perfect time of year for soup, but nothing comes close to the nutrition found in a batch made from scratch.  It takes a little more effort, but wouldn’t it be comforting to know you’re only eating broth, chicken, veggies and maybe a little rice or noodles as opposed to all those harmful ingredients found in the popular canned brands?  You can make up a big batch and freeze it in individual containers so it’s ready to grab for lunch at the office or a quick dinner for kids.  (See my Working Woman Soup and Sweet Potato Chili recipes for some ideas!) For those times when you just don’t have the time for anything except the canned stuff, select the Muir Glen or another organic brand with no MSG.  I’m guessing places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s would have some healthier options as well.

Were you as surprised as I was to see all the crazy ingredients they put in the Progresso, Campbell’s and Healthy Choice soups?  What kind of soup does your family buy?  Do you have a great homemade recipe to share?  I want to hear from you!