Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Label Reading 101

The biggest mistake that shoppers make when buying food is reading nutrition labels. Too many believe that the marketing gimmicks on labels are scientific fact. Labels scream "healthy", "natural", or "0 trans fat". Yet in fact the ingredient list often contains partially hydrogenated oil which is trans fat, is certainly not natural and has never been healthy.

The FDA allows products to be labeled 0 grams trans fat if there is less than .5 grams per serving. So some companies lower the serving size of their product until it falls within these guidelines. The amount the average person would consume could easily be double or triple the stated serving size. At the end of the day after eating a number of "no trans fat" products, one could easily consume significant amounts of it. The American Heart Association suggests that you limit your daily intake to less than 2 g., even though it admits there is no safe level to consume.

The Only Part of the Label that Matters

The nutrition facts box listing calories, fat grams, and synthetic vitamins is all but useless. A product low in fat, sugar, sodium, and calories isn't necessarily healthy or nutritious. An example of this is rice. The nutrition facts on a bag of refined white rice states that it contains 0 g. total fat, 0 g. sodium, and 160 calories per 1/4 c. serving. The nutrition box on a bag of unrefined brown rice states that it contains 1.5 g. total fat, 20 mg. sodium, and 170 calories per 1/4 c. serving. According to what the FDA tells us about reading labels, the white rice is the better choice. If we are smart enough to avoid letting them educate us right out of our common sense, we will ignore the nutrition facts box and look at the ingredient list. There we will find that white rice contains long grain rice enriched with a long list of synthetic vitamins that I'm too lazy to type out. On the brown rice package, the ingredient list contains one ingredient- long grain brown rice. It's obvious which one is really the better choice. The only part of the label that matters is the ingredient list.

Eat Mostly Whole Foods

Eating healthy doesn't require a phd, nor do we need to do an in-depth nutritional analysis of every thing we eat. A healthy diet can not simply be broken down into protein, fats, carbs and fiber. That's how we got into these ridiculous eating patterns like the low-fat craze, followed by the low-carb craze. Then it was the omega 3 craze and companies began adding it to everything including orange juice. Now it's becoming the fiber-added craze and I see commercials for fiber supplements as well as products with added fiber popping up everywhere, including yogurt.

Scientists do a study, find that a particular isolated nutrient appears to be good for health, and suddenly it's used in supplements and added to every processed food product. Common sense gets thrown out the window in exchange for profits.

Nature intended for us to eat whole foods in order to get complete nutrition. The nutrients in whole foods work together as a whole, they were never meant to be isolated. Industrial processed foods can never replicate this. They are made for shelf life and profit. Healthy foods spoil.  Processed foods have had most of their nutrition processed out and chemicals added to preserve the little that's left.

The words "fortified", "enriched", "extra", and "plus" on a label are all warnings to watch out for. They mean that the nutrition and fiber have been removed during processing, and the manufacturer has tried to add some of it back.

Whole foods are foods that are still in their natural state. Most of them don't have a label. They haven't been processed or refined and contain all of their original nutrients. They are easily recognizable as having come from nature. They include fruits, vegetables, brown rice, oats, quinoa, nuts, beans and lentils. Juice is not a whole food, the nutritious pulp and peel of the fruits have been wasted. Egg whites are not a whole food. If you eat eggs, eat the whole egg, don't throw away the yolk, it is where all the nutrition is. White rice is not a whole food, the nutritious hull, bran and germ have been removed. A baked potato is a whole food, instant mashed potatoes in a box are not. By shopping the perimeter of the store, you can find most of the whole foods and avoid most of the processed junk. When available, farmers' markets are even better.

Here's my rule of thumb- anything that requires a laboratory or factory to be created is not food. If you can't make it in your own kitchen, you probably shouldn't be eating it. An example of this is tvp. It requires chemicals and industrial machinery to make. As I've mentioned before, many soy products such as tvp, fake meats and even Clif bars were found to have hexane residues  from processing. Hexane is a neurotoxin and it is not yet known if it is also a carcinogen. Tempeh, on the other hand, has been made for thousands of years and can be made in your kitchen, no hexane necessary. High fructose corn syrup is another good example. It's an industrial product that can not be made at home, and is made using genetically modified enzymes and usually genetically modified corn as well. This additive does not qualify as food according to my definition.

Rather than trying to analyze how much of this or that nutrient is in the food, all you need to do is eat a variety of mostly whole, plant foods.

Food Additives to Avoid

These are additives I avoid when reading the ingredient list on the few packaged foods I buy. Additives are cheap replacements for quality ingredients. They are not nutrients. And just because they are legal to use, doesn't mean they are healthy or safe. Cigarettes are legal too, but they are deadly.

Trans fat- can be listed as partially hydrogenated oil, or sometimes as shortening. Causes heart disease, is linked with stroke, diabetes, promotes inflammation and may also be linked to cancers.

High fructose corn syrup- made with genetically modified ingredients, often contains mercury, is linked to liver problems, obesity and diabetes.

mono- and diglycerides- another type of highly processed fat that may contain trans fat, is used to emulsify and extend shelf life.

msg- monosodium glutamate is added to food to trick your brain into thinking it tastes better than it does. It may cause headaches, asthma, and is an excitotoxin which kills brain cells.

BHA and BHT- can cause liver enlargement and are known to be carcinogenic. Found in everything from cereal to dog food.

TBHQ- carcinogenic, a neurotoxin, alters red blood cell activity.

Artificial colors- have been linked to hyperactivity, allergic reactions, and cancers. Most are made from petrochemicals which the body is not designed to eat.

Sodium nitrite and nitrate- used in processed meats, known to cause cancer.

Artificial flavoring- consists of hundreds of chemicals, may contain msg, do not have to list them separately.

Sodium Benzoate- when used in products along with ascorbic acid (vitamin c), it can react to form benzene, a known carcinogen. Some, but not all soft drink makers have removed it from their products. It is also commonly found in jams and jellies.

Carageenan- used in many products including most ice creams and dairy products as well as imitation dairy products. Linked to colon cancer and gastrointestinal problems. My daughter and I both react strongly to this additive.

Aspartame, neotame, acesulfame k, saccharin, sucralose- have been linked to a host of health problems including cancers. All are synthetic chemicals that the body wasn't designed to consume.

Potassium Bromate- used in some baked goods, causes cancer.

Propyl gallate- linked to cancer.

Sulfites- used in dried fruits and processed potatoes. Destroy b vitamins and can cause severe reactions in those sensitive to them.

Soy lecithin- highly processed, extracted from soy waste products using hexane, a neurotoxin.

When reading ingredient lists, if you don't recognize it and can't pronounce it, don't eat it. I get tired of the food manufacturers saying a little of this or that won't hurt you. One cigarette won't kill you either, but it is still a good idea to avoid smoking.


Fayinagirl (means Free One) January 6, 2010 at 5:22 PM  

What a great post! I absolutely agree. Trying not to purchase anything that isn't "real" food. Eating whole foods, the way they were created makes life so much simpler and healthier. =)

Vegan Epicurean January 6, 2010 at 5:49 PM  


We were on the same wave length today weren't we? I absolutely agree, eat whole unprocessed food and you are better off.


janet January 6, 2010 at 6:03 PM  

Julie Lynn, you are right, eating whole foods does make life simpler as well as healthier:)

Alicia, we sure were thinking along the same lines today. I always love coming to see what you are doing!

Claudia January 7, 2010 at 12:04 PM  

Have recently fallen in love with quinoa. Great post!

Morgan January 7, 2010 at 1:55 PM  

I am going to print this out and give to my friends & family when they give me the "You guys are crazy" look!

5 Star Foodie January 7, 2010 at 5:04 PM  

Excellent post and great tips on reading the labels! I will definitely be paying even more attention.

iRaw January 7, 2010 at 5:08 PM  

Awesome post! Thanks for (what I call) the dirt list of ingredients - nasty stuff!!

janet January 7, 2010 at 9:54 PM  

Claudia, me too, quinoa is great isn't it?!

Morgan, most of my family thinks I am crazy, but once you learn about what is in the food supply and how much nutrition affects your health you can't unlearn it. Eating healthy has made such a difference in how I feel, I will never go back to eating meat, processed, or fast food. And knowing the link diet has to cancer I continue to work on my son's diet too.

Natasha, thanks for your kind comment:)

Chris, thanks. I'm so happy you are back and I look forward to reading your posts and your awesome recipes!

Venus January 8, 2010 at 8:28 PM  

I really enjoyed this post and am going to print out that list to help with my studies.

Oraphan January 13, 2010 at 2:16 AM  

What a great post! Thank you for sharing such helpful info, Janet. I've promised myself not to buy or eat processed food anymore and eat more wholefoods.

Anonymous,  April 24, 2010 at 12:26 AM  

I've printed out this list and will be carrying it in my purse whenever I go grocery shopping. Thanks!

janet April 26, 2010 at 1:51 PM  

Anonymous, you're welcome. Anytime I have any info. that I think will be helpful to others I post it.

Post a Comment


A quick note

All photos, and writing on this blog are copyright protected. If you use any of my material for noncommercial use, you must give credit to meatlessmama and link to this blog. No use for commercial purposes without my permission.

Please comment on my blog, I enjoy hearing from you.

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP