Reading Food Labels

Many people who visit the grocery store have no idea what is in the foods they purchase for their families, and they’d be surprised to find out. Don’t let tricky labeling fool you! What many people purchase and eat as foods these days would be barely recognizable to their great grandparents. Many of today’s processed foods are loaded with chemicals, trans-fats, artificial colors, and flavors, and all sorts of unhealthy toxins that bear very little resemblance to the foods humans were meant to eat.

Food Labeling Laws

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) controls how food manufacturers label their items. Foods that come in packages, jars, boxes, cans, and bags all must contain a Nutrition Facts label. In fact, the only foods exempt from nutrition facts are fresh produce and fish.

What’s on a Nutrition Facts Label

When you read a nutrition label, you will find the following:

  • Serving size, usually measured in cups, grams, or ounces
  • Servings per container
  • Calories per serving and calories from fat per serving
  • Total amounts per serving of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (in grams), as well as percent of daily value for each
  • Cholesterol and sodium
  • Trans and saturated fat
  • Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance
  • Ingredients, listed in the order from the highest volume contained to lowest

What’s Not on a Nutrition Facts Label

Nutrition Facts labels may also be somewhat misleading, because the following information is not included:

  • If it contains less than 1 g of a macronutrient, it can list it as 0 g – so fat-free may not actually be fat free.
  • Packaging contents that can seep into foods (such as bisphenol-A in plastic bottles) are not included.
  • Pesticides or GMO status of ingredients are not listed.
  • Environmental toxins that may contaminate ingredients do not show up on labels.
  • Hormones and antibiotics fed to animals that produce some of the ingredients are not included.
  • Also, it is easy to look at the total number and assume that is how much is how much the total bottle is, when in fact there might be 2 or more servings. For instance, one 15.2 oz bottle of Naked Juice is 2 servings, which lists “no sugar added” on the front of the bottle totals in at a whopping 56 grams of sugar (it’s mostly all fruit juice and fruit puree). So be sure to multiply out to find the right numbers when checking how much you would actually consume in a serving!

Other Required Labeling

Irradiated foods that have been treated with ionizing radiation (the kind related to radioactivity) must contain the Radura symbol, as well as the words “treated with radiation,” or “treated with irradiation.”

Advertising Claims

Another thing you will find on food package labels are advertising claims. These do not appear on the Nutrition Facts label; rather, they appear on front or side labels. Some advertising claims you may see (and the truth about them) include:

  • All Natural (or 100% Natural): This does not mean that the ingredients are all natural. In fact, the FDA currently has no plans to define this term. Take an all-natural label with a grain of salt.
  • Nothing Artificial or No Artificial Ingredients: Again, this is an advertising claim that is all hat and no cattle. For example, many foods containing high-fructose corn syrup (a corn-derived artificial sweetener) are labeled either “all natural” or “no artificial ingredients.”
  • Trademarked scientific names: Have you seen the ads for Dannon Activitia, which contains “Bifidis Regularis.” Sounds impressive, no? It’s a made up name that Dannon uses to communicate yogurt’s probiotic properties.
  • Sugar-free: The FDA defines sugar as “sucrose,” so if it contains any other sugar sweeteners instead of sucrose, it’s fair game and can be called sugar free.
  • Whole grain: That doesn’t mean what you are buying is 100 percent whole grain, it just means that the food contains some whole grains, which include the germ, brand, and endosperm. It can contain refined flours, as well, and actually be made up mostly of the cheaper, refined flours.
  • Multi-grain: Again, this sounds healthy, but all it means is it contains different types of grains. Such products could still contain tons of refined grains. And when it comes to Whole Grain vs Whole Wheat vs Multi-Grain, they all should be avoided and substituted with non-gluten grains.

Ingredients to Watch for

So, now you know what you’ll find on a label as well as having an idea what not to believe, and you’re ready to scan the ingredients list. Take a magnifying glass. Some of those ingredients lists are in tiny print. Additionally, some of the names are just a bit misleading. What should you avoid on ingredients labels?

  1. If you can’t pronounce it, you probably don’t want to put it in your body. You were meant to eat simple foods: spinach, carrots, apple instead of monohydroxsodium aspartate (I just made that up). If it sounds like a chemical, it probably is and does not belong in your body.
  2. High-fructose corn syrup: Corn and syrup are two easily pronounced, natural sounding words can’t be that bad, right? In fact, many believe HCFS is the most significant factor in the rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States. HCFS is an artificial sweetener derived from corn. It is highly processed, and contains high levels of fructose, which may result in liver damage, and it rapidly raises blood sugar. Recently, the Corn Refiners Association, have pushed to be able to label HCFS merely as “corn sugar.” If you see this on a label, it’s just HCFS trying to sound more natural. Remember though that agave has more fructose though than HFCS! Check ingredient labels and avoid “health” or raw foods that contain agave, which is certainly not a health food you want to be ingesting.
  3. Sugar: A label may come straight out and say it contains sugar, or it may use all kinds of clever names including sucrose, fructose, glucose solids, barley malt, corn syrup solids, dehydrated cane juice, cane juice, refiners syrup, maltodextrin, caramel, fruit juice, dextrose, and many others.
  4. Artificial sweeteners: These are chemicals, some of which are neurotoxic. Look for names like aspartame, NutraSweet, sucralose, Equal, Splenda, saccharine, acesulfame-K, acesulfame potassium, and neotame.
  5. Monosodium glutamate: Another neurotoxin, monosodium glutamate or MSG is added as a flavor enhancer. Avoid it at all costs, or anything containing free glutamate. It may also appear on labels as hydrolyzed protein, glutamic acid, glutamate, monopotassium glutamate, calcium glutamate, yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, textured protein, soy protein, whey protein, calcium caseinate, and sodium caseinate.
  6. Artificial anything: Simply put, these are chemicals. Avoid foods that call out artificial colors or flavors. It may also be listed as  “(color) dye # (number).”
  7. Trans fats: According to the American Heart Association, no amount of trans fats are considered safe. This processed ingredient is associated with raising LDL (bad) cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Avoid any ingredients listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, as well.
  8. Sodium nitrate or nitrite: Nitrates and nitrites may increase risk of cancer, according to WebMD.

What Should You Eat?

I recommend minimizing packaged foods as much as possible. If it comes in a bottle, bag, can, box, jar, or some other type of packaging, then it is likely processed. Instead, I recommend eating an organic plant-based diet with whole non-gluten grains and raw nuts and seeds. I’ve outlined the best diet for health in The Beauty Detox Solution. If you eat this way, then food labels become much less of an issue in the first place!

New York Times Bestselling Author, Nutritionist, Wellness and Beauty Expert