Last updated: Mar 02, 2016
must-eat
Plamen Petkov
Food shopping is a daunting task these days, especially if you're trying to eat right. With supposed health benefits screaming from labels and the actual ingredients in mighty fine print, you practically need a PhD in nutrition to bring home the right mix.

To the rescue: the Health Must-Eat List. It's "designed to help you shop healthy in every aisle of the grocery store," says Caroline Kaufman, RDN, a family nutrition expert in San Francisco. Our guide will lead you to the best choices while helping you cut through the hype and make smart decisions about which foods are worthy of your grocery dollars. "The Health Must-Eat criteria aren't influenced by marketing claims on the label," Kaufman says. "They're based on how healthy the food is on the inside—what it's made of."

Of course, fresh fruits and vegetables are automatic must-eats. But let's get real—most of us rely on packaged products, too, from crackers to cups of yogurt to frozen dinners. That's where the Health Must-Eat List comes in. Together with a panel of leading nutrition and food science experts, the editors of Health came up with a detailed but simple formula to identify healthful fare that you can truly feel good about eating.

In order to qualify, a food must not only be free of all the bad stuff you don't want or need—trans fats, tons of added sugar, potentially harmful preservatives and the like—but also contain nutrients that enhance your physical well-being. For example, it might have calcium, which boosts bone health, or live active cultures, which promote digestive health. "Think of Must-Eat foods as junk-food antidotes—they help restore the dietary equilibrium," says expert panelist Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington.

To determine the criteria, our panel carefully reviewed years of health and nutrition research, looking at what the most scientifically sound studies have shown us over time. Once the formula was set, we dispatched a team of a dozen nutritionists and Health editors to scour supermarket shelves. We also put out an open call to food manufacturers to submit their newest and healthiest products for consideration.

The results: Of the more than 3,500 products that we reviewed, nearly 1,000 foods and beverages from 225 different brands made it onto our list. "It is encouraging that there are now many more healthy products available than there were a few years ago," says expert panelist Walter Willett, MD, Fredrick John Stare professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

On these pages, you'll find our best bets in four categories—frozen treats, nut butters, packaged fruit and snacks, cookies and crackers. (We'll cover more types of food in future issues of Health.) Whether you need a nutritious dinner staple or are looking for a power treat to tide you over until your next meal, each of these picks plays a key role in a balanced diet. Shop easier, eat better: It really is as simple as that.



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Frozen treats
Watch out for added sugar here; we eliminated any product that listed it as the first or second ingredient. Also avoid foods that contain artificial sweeteners, which are used to sweeten products without adding calories—but can contribute to weight gain by training us to prefer their flavors over the natural sweetness of whole foods.


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Nut butters
Nut butters are a delicious way to get protein and healthy fats. But sugar is a potential pitfall—many nut butters that didn't make our list had sugar as the second ingredient, after nuts. Also avoid partially hydrogenated oils (a source of unhealthy trans fats), which some manufacturers use to prevent separation.


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Packaged fruit
It's best to eat fruit in as close to its natural form as possible. That means saying no to fruit packaged in gels or syrups that contain lots of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Canned, jarred or cups of fruit in 100 percent fruit juice, or dried or freeze-dried fruit with no added sugar, were the only kinds that made our list.


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Snacks, cookies, and crackers
Look for snacks made primarily from whole grains (popcorn counts!) and choose one that, when combined with your other choices throughout the day, keeps you under your daily sodium limit. Steer clear of snacks that are made only from refined grains, contain partially hydrogenated oils or shortening (sources of trans fat) or are loaded with sugar—again, an easy trick is to skip any product that lists sugar as the first or second ingredient.


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Cereals
You already know that your breakfast bowl is no place for multicolored marshmallows or anything shaped like a cookie. But with so many types of cereal out there, it's not easy landing on the most nutritious a.m. bite. Make it easier with these top picks from our food pros.


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Bread, rice and grains
Whole grains have a lot going for them: They're incredibly filling and a natural source of fiber. This must-eat list will help you grab the most nutritious products.


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Cheese
Cheese gets a bad rap, but it can be nutritious (in addition to delicious). For one, it's a good source of calcium, which helps build bone and plays a role in muscle function, nerve transmission and regulating blood pressure. It also fuels your body with protein, vitamin D, phosphorus, and zinc.


What it takes to be a Health Must-Eat Food
The Health Must-Eat List is designed to help you identify truly nutritious foods in every aisle of the grocery store. To qualify for our list, a product had to meet the following criteria.

First, it must be free of the following potentially harmful ingredients:
  1. Suspect preservatives: BHT, BHA, nitrites, and nitrates
  2. Unhealthy fats: olestra and trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated oils, and shortening)
  3. Artificial and high-intensity sweeteners: acesulfame potassium or acesulfame K; aspartame; monk fruit extract; neotame; saccharin; sucralose; stevia extracts; tagatose; and trehalose
Second, it must be a good source of at least one of the following health-promoting nutrients. Each of these has a body of scientific research suggesting it contributes to fending off disease and promoting good health:
  1. Dietary fiber. One serving must have at least 3g of fiber. Foods with only added or functional fiber are excluded. Added fiber includes: inulin (from chicory root), maltodextrin, polydextrose, soy hulls, oat fibers, sorghum fibers.
  2. Live active cultures. Product must either a) have a seal from the National Yogurt Association that says "Live & Active Cultures" or b) contain phrasing such as "contains live active cultures" or "living yogurt cultures." Products labeled "heat-treated after culturing" are excluded.
  3. Vitamins or minerals. One serving must provide at least 15 percent of the daily value (DV) for one or more of the following:
    • Potassium
    • Calcium
    • Vitamin D
    • B vitamins: Thiamine (vitamin B1), Riboflavin (vitamin B2), Niacin (vitamin B3), Pantothenic Acid (vitamin B5), Vitamin B6, Biotin (vitamin B7), Vitamin B12, Folic acid/folate
    • Vitamin A
    • Vitamin C
    • Vitamin E
    • Iron
    • Zinc
Third, it must not be a junk food in disguise. Sometimes a product might seem like a good choice—it's high in vitamins or fiber or some other health-promoting nutrient, for instance. But it's also loaded with sugar or salt. "A candy bar with added fiber is still a candy bar," says Health Must-Eat panelist Caroline Kaufman, RDN. All products that made it through the first two rounds of criteria were evaluated to ensure they were not too high in sugar, salt (sodium) or any other potentially unhealthy ingredient.

Meet our nutrition pros
We consulted with leading health and nutrition authorities to compile the Health Must-Eat List. These experts are on the forefront of nutrition and antiobesity research. Through their numerous books and more than 1,000 scientific studies, they have changed the way we eat and think about food.

Walter Willett, MD. Fredrick John Stare professor of epidemiology and nutrition, and chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Adam Drewnowski, PhD. Director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition and the Center for Obesity Research, and director of the nutritional sciences program and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.

Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN. Registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in family nutrition, and award-winning blogger at sweetfoodie.com.

Special thanks to Colin Rehm, MPH, a PhD candidate in the department of epidemiology at the University of Washington; Anna Gabriel, MPH, RD; the Whole Grains Council; Sally Barton; Doris Chung; Cara E. Davis; Jessica E. Kim; Juli Louttit, MPH, RD.