The simplest way to make shopping for healthier food a snap, experts say, is to fill most of your cart with fresh and unprocessed items such as fruits and vegetables.

“In general, I usually recommend people eat as close to nature as possible,” says Dana Hunnes, R.D., Ph.D., an adjunct assistant professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

But most of us eat at least some processed items, and choosing healthy packaged food can be challenging because nutrition labels and ingredients lists aren’t always easy to decode.

If you're looking for reasonably healthy packaged food—with ingredients lists that some call "clean"—Consumer Reports’ nutrition experts recommend that you keep the following strategies in mind when shopping:

Compare labels and ingredients lists. Look at different brands in the same food category. In general, it’s smart to go for the one with the simplest, shortest list of ingredients. Check nutrition labels to determine how much sodium, sugars, and fats are in the items you're considering.

Buy organic. Choosing certified organic foods can help you avoid many artificial additives and antibiotics, which aren't allowed under the organic rules.

Go basic. Typically, when it comes to healthy packaged food, the plainer the flavor, the simpler (and often shorter) the ingredients list. For example, unflavored Quaker oatmeal has just one ingredient—rolled oats—but the instant apples and cinnamon version has well over a dozen.

Keep in mind, though, that all products with simple ingredients lists aren’t necessarily healthy packaged foods. Lay’s Classic potato chips, for example, have just three ingredients—potatoes, vegetable oil, and salt—but they’re heavy on fat and sodium.

If you're shopping for crackers, frozen dinners, pizza, soup, or cereal, our experts also advise the following:


What to look for: Choose lower-sodium products that have whole grain as the first ingredient. Don’t be put off by long lists for multigrain crackers; they can contain many grains and seeds that lengthen the list in a good way.

What to skip: Partially hydrogenated oils are a source of trans fats, which can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. The Food and Drug Administration has required companies to remove partially hydrogenated oils foods by June 2018, and though many have already stopped using them, you may still want to check  nutrition labels. You may also want to avoid brands with high fructose corn syrup, a highly processed sweetener.

Frozen Dinners

What to look for: This can be pretty heavily processed stuff, so don’t expect short ingredients lists. Your best choices are products that provide the biggest nutrition punch, so look for simple mixes of protein, vegetables, and whole grains.

What to skip: Avoid products with refined grains—such as wheat flour rather than whole-wheat flour—and additives such as modified food starch, gums, and artificial colors and flavors. It's also smart to avoid products in the freezer case with a lot of sodium, saturated fat, and/or sugars, so check and compare labels.


What to look for: A long ingredients list on a packaged soup isn’t necessarily a bad thing—as long as it reads like a homemade recipe. “I’m fine if there’s 20 different vegetables in that soup but you recognize every single one,” Hunnes says. With reduced-sodium and so-called “healthy” soup brands, be sure to read and compare labels, because many have additives to boost flavor and texture.

What to skip: Look out for list lengtheners like modified food starches, unspecified “flavorings,” coloring, high fructose corn syrup, and the flavor-booster monosodium glutamate, or MSG, (which might be hidden in ingredients like hydrolyzed vegetable protein). Anyone with kidney problems should avoid sodium substitutes such as potassium chloride, sometimes used in “reduced-sodium” brands.

Frozen Pizza

What to look for: Frozen pizza is a complex food with an unavoidably long ingredients list. Look for products with less processed toppings—sliced tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, for example—to reduce the number of ingredients. Sodium levels in frozen pizza can be astronomical, but opting for vegetable toppings rather than sausage and extra cheese can help lighten the salt load.

What to skip: Steer clear of too many preservatives and gums, as well as artificial color and flavor. And if you want to avoid nitrates—which are used to cure meat and boost shelf life, and may lead to the formation of cancer-causing compounds—skip pizzas for meat lovers.


What to look for: Choose brands that have whole grains high on a short ingredients list. It doesn’t get much better than one-ingredient shredded wheat. Be aware that fortified cereals will typically have much longer lists and might cost more than those without added vitamins and minerals.

What to skip: Some cereals, especially those for children, are loaded with food coloring. And watch out for healthy sounding products that contain multiple natural sweeteners—like evaporated cane sugar and honey. It's healthiest to limit sugars in cereal to no more than 8 grams per serving.

Shop Like a Nutritionist

Eating well isn't always easy—or fun. On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports' expert, Amy Keating, heads into the grocery store to show you how to make healthy decisions when it comes to food.