Welcome to our Healthy Habit Challenge! Instead of focusing on (impossible-to-keep) New Year's resolutions, we're challenging four writers to start a new healthy habit. These challenges aren't about cutting out sugar or going on a diet, or focused on the negative. They're about doing something new and good — and making it second-nature.
I'm not what you would call an uninformed consumer — in addition to being budget-conscious basically from birth (thanks, Mom!), I worked at Good Housekeeping for more than four years, writing about products tested by the Good Housekeeping Institute, and have reported on grocery-shopping trends for years. Plus, as a personal trainer and because of a medically necessary diet (womps!), I'm generally pretty good about scanning the nutritional facts and looking for certain things on food labels.
Specifically, I'm really good at looking to see if something contains gluten.
Why I Want to Make a New Habit
That said, like most people, I can sometimes gloss over a lot of the other words the manufacturers put on their packaging, and frankly, I skip reading labels entirely when it comes to products I've bought before. For example, I always reach for a bag of Smartfood popcorn (as far as ingredients go, it really is pretty smart!) and don't even bother reading its label or looking at any other options on the shelf. But on a recent trip to the store, I saw Smartfood Delight and worried, "Am I missing out? Should I be reading all the popcorn bags?"
Then I started thinking: There are plenty of terms or ingredients I don't understand and haven't bothered to look up. I know I'm supposed to avoid carageenan (my doctor says its can upset my, um, system), but I'm still not entirely sure what it is. And there's probably something of use on those labels that the meat department slaps on those plastic-wrapped packages, but aside from the name of the cut, expiration date, and the price, I don't even notice.
The Plan: Read Every Label!
For the next few weeks, I will read every word on every label of food I buy, and look up any terms I don't understand. I'll dig into some of that marketing speak, too (I already know that "natural" is a crock) and probably learn new synonyms for "sugar" that I never knew existed.
While I'm at it, I may as well get in the habit of doing a little price-comparing. I once wrote a story on unit pricing and learned how inconsistent it can be, even within the same types of food. For example, some yogurts will be listed in ounces and others in pounds. Annoying! So I'll be pulling out my trusty smartphone to find an app for that. (There's gotta be a good one, right?) That said, I'll also make some judgment calls about what "value" means to me — if it's cheaper but chock-full of god-knows-what, is it really worth it?
What Could Go Wrong?
None of this is exactly what I'd call quick work, so I'm expecting my shopping trips to take a lot more time, at least until I get into the swing of it. This also has the potential to be incredibly boring. In fact, I just noticed that a bottle of salad dressing in my fridge contains "extra vigrin" olive oil. Even the copy editor doesn't bother reading the labels!
And what if all this info causes major indecision? There is such a thing as information overload. What if I get totally stressed out and just end up eating out all of the time (no labels!) or simply giving up?
My hope is that this new habit will kickstart me into becoming a truly informed food shopper. Maybe I'll discover some new favorites along the way. And when I report back, maybe it'll give you some inspiration as well! Wish me luck!