I have several friends that are starting a paleo plan for their families. They (as am I) fairly, if not brand new, to paleolithic eating. They are curious about picking out the correct products when shopping. Are there some key words on labels that can be cues for avoiding certain items?
Honestly, you should know the answer if you know the paleo basics. otherwise it might be good to educate yourself and read some books about it. Just saying... Could be difficult to maintain this diet without knowing what to avoid.
Paleo is really convenient, you really don't need to read the labels... because you usually don't buy any food with labels.
However, here is what might help you in general:
In case that's not practical enough for your friends and they still want to buy processed food (Which technically means they aren't eating paleo), this are the most evil things:
Don't buy foods that need labels. Get: Meats, (ok, grass fed and finished is a good label), eggs from a farm, butter, fish, vegetables, fruit. Or if it has a label, one ingredient would be ideal. Yeah, I may be stretching the point a bit, but the vast majority of foods you eat on a healthy paleo diet won't come with labels.
To paraphrase Michael Pollan, if you can't pronounce an ingredient on the label, or don't know what it is, you're probably better off refusing the food.
As far as real food goes, emphasis should be placed on "grassfed" or "pastured" over words like "natural", "organic", and "free-range". The latter may be better than conventional feedlot animals, but it's not the same as grassfed/pastured.
Beyond that, most paleo folks will refrain from buying anything containing wheat or legumes. Even in health food stores, a significant percentage of shelved items contain one or the other, particularly when it comes to soy-derived products.
Also, any form of sugar should be avoided. Everyone talks about high-fructose corn syrup, but really, any added sugar/agave/etc should be avoided as a general rule.
I don't buy anything that isn't broken down into a most minimal part (OK, not molecular structure) -- for example "chicken broth" as an ingredient is not acceptable to me. What's in that chicken broth? Chicken flavor? What's that?
With respect to labels, you want as FEW ingredients as possible, this will generally mean it was processed less which is a good thing. As WyldKard mentioned, avoid any added sugar whether real (sugar, honey, agave, etc...), fake (artificial stuff) or pure evil (High Fructose Corn Syrup. Also watch for added oils and grains such as soy, wheat, seed oils. Stuff like oats and rice aren't as bad, but should still be avoided.
And if you have to get something bad, remember that ingredients are listed in order of content, so if sugar is listed as the last ingredient, it won't be nearly as bad as being listed as the first ingredient.
Ultimately though the goal is to buy fresh produce and meat and prepare it yourself. Stick to the outside of the store and prioritize local and organic food in that order. On produce stickers it will say what state it was grown in most of the time, but farmers markets are your best bet for fresh local produce. As far as meet is concerned buy grass fed and organic or at least hormone free.
Good luck and have fun with it!
We recently wrote a post about affordability of shopping Paleo (http://paleoparents.com/2011/how-to-keep-your-paleo-family-out-of-the-poorhouse/) as well as some recommended items for your shopping list (http://paleoparents.com/2011/efficiently-economically-and-easily-how-to-grocery-shop/).
Instead of what to avoid (good answers already given) here's what we recommend when you're transitioning and looking for shelf-stable, affordable items:
Wholly Guacamole brand guacamole
Trader Joe's red and green salsa's
Trader Joe's olive oil, egg yolk and lemon juice to make your own mayonnaise
Canned olives and fruit in own juices
Canned wild salmon and tuna (Cost and Trader Joe's have the best prices and quality product)
Beef Jerky, without soy sauce and low in sugar
Sunbutter (Sunflower Butter) and Almond Butter
Fresh fruit (bananas and apples pack well) - dip in butters!
Fresh veggies (carrots, celery, pepper slices and cucumber are big hits) - dip in quac!
Nuts, dried fruit and unsweetened coconut flakes to make your own trail mix
TONS of Omega 3 rich eggs (free range, grass fed is best)
Almond meal or almond flour (we like honeyville but Bob's Red Mill is readily available) for "treats" if desired
Just make it fun for the kids, make it about learning about foods and health rather than deprivation and everyone will be excited in no time :)
Where to buy paleo foods in Jersey City 5 Answers
$35/Week for Food, What do you buy? 15 Answers