The pressure industrialized food production has on the planet affects us all—from the toxic agro-chemical genetically modified seed industry, to the billions of animals raised for food, to the artificial ingredients that flavor, preserve and color processed foods—it's enough to make any stroll through a local supermarket feel surreal, even scary. Aisle after aisle of packaged foods contain more unrecognizable ingredients than recognizable ones.
We've come to rely on the health food store as panacea to the supermarket, blindly filling our shopping cart with items we assume to be healthy. But even our beloved organic foods can contain non-organic stabilizers, gelling agents and flavors, some with known human health risks. And it makes sense as many of the major multinational corporate conglomerates that dominate conventional supermarkets also own many of the natural food brands we love. Discernment can be tricky.
What we know for sure is that less is more. Buying ingredients instead of "products" is the best way to a truly healthy meal. This means fresh fruits and vegetables—best when local and seasonal, and even better when you grow your own. Buying bulk grains, beans, seeds and nuts, and again, making your own meals from scratch decreases your risk for foodborne illnesses, excess salt, sugar, trans fats and other unsavory ingredients. While this is the goal for many of us, it is not often a reality. So we cut corners, buying boxed cereal instead of making our own, pasta sauce from a jar, frozen pizza, and so on.
If we look to food brands as a condiment to our otherwise pure diets, there are some worthy of supporting. And in this modern world where we can research products at the swipe of a smart phone, we owe it to our healthiest selves to make sure what we put in our bodies is of the highest quality.
While it may seem as if there would be hundreds of natural food brands worthy of recognition, coming up with just 20 was a task. Some well-known brands did not make this list for several reasons. First: Amy's. While we love that Amy's is still family-owned and uses a roster of recognizable ingredients, most of the products are made for the microwave. And we simply cannot recommend that as a healthy method of cooking. The brand does however offer a few items that are not meant for a microwave, but also beware of the canned soup line, as the brand does not say it uses BPA-free packaging.
Another brand not on this list is White Wave/Silk. Not only is the brand owned by the largest dairy conglomerate in the U.S., Dean Foods (although they're looking to sell it), they've also replaced organic soybeans in the soymilk and soy products with non-organic. And, most every nondairy milk brand available contains non-organic ingredients like gelling agents, including carrageenan--a known carcinogen also connected with digestive disorders. You can easily make your own instead.
Also not included on this list are any dairy or meat brands (and not just because I am a vegan). Research has shown that most consumers who truly understand the benefits of organically raised animal products, also value the locally raised model and support regional farmers and ranchers. As a general rule, we recommend this as well. Get to know a local dairy farmer. Go visit a chicken farm or a cattle ranch. Chances are there are several near you, and if you do consume animal products, it's much to your advantage to see where your animals come from. Smaller farms are better farms. Period.
Organic foods are always recommended when possible. Not all of these brands are organic; but all employ quality standards and ingredients, and some even observe Fair Trade practices as well.
Our criteria included recommendations taken from The Cornucopia Institute Scorecards (soy and carrageenan). As well, we looked at the operation of the business, relationship to suppliers and producers, and the taste and quality of the actual food items themselves.
In suspenseful reveal fashion, we're listing our favorite last, so read on…drumroll please!
The Top 20 Most Credible Natural Food Brands
20. Wildwood: The organic sprouted tofus are GMO-free but some of the processed fodos including yogurts, can contain ingredients to avoid.
19. Rejuvenative Foods: High quality fermented foods.
18. Kettle Chips: Stick with the organic options.
17.Lundberg Farms: Beware the packaged risottos with "butter flavor."
16.Tofurky: Generally clean organic tofu products, but some of the more processed items, including the pizzas, contain questionable ingredients that are best to avoid.
15. Reed's: Ginger is medicine, and these sodas are amazing, but they do however contain a lot of sugar. Like all soft drinks, save for special occassions.
14. Mary's Gone Crackers: Gluten-free, whole grain and clean ingredients when snacking is a must.
13. Sunshine Burger: Pretty much the only soy-free, wheat-free veggie burger option besides your own recipe. They essentially do just one thing, and they do it well.
12. Field Roast: Very clean mock-meats, but wheat-based and non-organic. Still, better than most else out there when you can't make your own.
11. Equal Exchange: An emphasis on Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. Check ingredients on processed items.
10. Theo Chocolate: You can find a lot of locally made chocolates now in most major cities, but a good default option is Theo's organic and Fair Trade varieties. Not all vegan.
9. Artisana: High quality clean nut butters in glass jars.
8. Bob's Redmill: Stick with the solo ingredients rather than the mixes.
7. Dr. Bronner's: They mostly make the world's best soap, but their coconut oil is now available in stores and it's the best-tasting Fair Trade coconut oil currently available. Hopefully they bring more products with integrity to our food supply.
6. Big Tree Farms: A newcomer to the food industry, but they're doing some revolutionary products including coconut palm sugar. And working with thousands of farmers in Bali as a cooperative is also pretty cool.
5. Traditional Medicinals: Pharmacopeial grade herbs formulated by professional herbalists for high-quality, effective teas.
4. Nature's Path: The go-to brand for organic cereal and a commitment to non-GMO ingredients, but beware, they still use a lot of sugar and ingredients like soy oil.
3. Food for Life: Sprouted grains are edible grains. No fillers; impeccable quality.
2. Bragg's: Trust people who make their money on apple cider vinegar. And drink it daily.
1. Eden Foods: BPA-free cans, organic soy, no gelling agents in the soymilk, commitment to organic, local and traditionally made foods for three decades. Family-owned.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger