Hello dear friends!
Last week, we took a peek into the mysterious world of nutrition labels, and went through each of the main ingredients and what they mean for your health. Today, we’ll go even deeper, and I’ll help you translate the often-confusing list of ingredients, and how you can get good at identifying exactly what is in your food! Now, keep in mind that this does take some practice, and can seem quite overwhelming at first, but it’s important to keep learning and making better choices as you go along. Granted, you could go hard-core and stop eating all foods that come with a label at all, but the rest of us mortals will just have to continue navigating the food industry’s tricks!
So, as you’ll remember, every package of food is required to have a nutrition facts statement, which we went over last time. But the fun doesn’t stop there! Below or next to that box, you’ll find a list of the actual ingredients that make up the item you’re holding in your hand, and this is where it really pays to develop your Sherlock skills. There are literally thousands of individual ingredients that are recognized and labeled by food companies, but trust me, once you get the hang of this, you’ll be able to instantly see if that food is something that deserves a place in your bod. First up, I thought we’d start with three helpful little tips:
1. Ingredients are listed in order of volume, from the largest amount to the smallest amount that is present in the food/drink. So the first ingredient you see makes up the largest proportion of that item, while the last ingredient is typically only in trace amounts.
2. As a rule of thumb, when you’re trying to eat clean, the longer the ingredients list, the less healthy a food item is for you. If you turn the package around and are slammed in the face with a list 30 things long, you can assume that it is highly processed and contains harmful fillers and additives. Remember, Mother Nature keeps it simple, and simple is best when it comes to your food.
3. If you see an ingredient that you cannot pronounce (within reason, allowing for a range of education levels here), or an ingredient list that contains a lot of numbers, capitalized letters, or symbols like “#”, put it back on the shelf! Natural, whole foods generally don’t have these things in them. But as always, if you’re not sure, look it up on your smartphone before buying.
Just like we talked about in last week’s blog, the nutrition facts are helpful to get a snapshot of your food, but the true test of an item’s healthfulness/toxicity lies in the list of ingredients. For example, the facts label may show a high amount of fat, but only the ingredients list can show where that fat comes from (raw macadamia nuts vs. partially hydrogenated soybean oil- BIG difference!).
As you run your eyes across the ingredient lists, look for the following red flags!
Red Flag 1- Added sugars
Whew boy, this is something you’ll run into everywhere, even in health food stores with shelves stocked with organic products. While some natural sugars from fruits and such can be just fine for most people, if you see any sugar in the ingredients list, it means that it is considered an “added sugar,” and this is bad news, peeps. The tough thing is that sugar is sneaky, and hides out under dozens of different aliases.
✘ Some tricky names for sugar: sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, malt, fructose, glucose, carbitol, mannitol, lactose, evaporated cane juice, or concentrated fruit juice. Want the full list? Check it out here!
Red Flag 2- MSG
MSG, aka monosodium glutamate, is a pretty nasty little neurotoxin that shows up in more than just your average Chinese takeout. It is considered a “flavor enhancer,” which by that very name, should make you suspicious. I mean, real foods have lots of amazing flavors, right?
✘ Some signs that MSG may be hiding out in your food: glutamate, yeast extract, glutamic acid, hydrolyzed proteins, autolyzed yeast, natural beef flavoring, whey protein, maltodextrin, soy protein isolate, soy sauce extract, “natural flavoring”, and almost anything that mysteriously lists “seasonings” in the ingredients.
Red Flag 3- Gluten
Even if you don’t suffer from Celiac disease, it’s smart to steer clear of gluten. If you want a refresher on why you should avoid it, check out this article here. One of the issues, from a food labeling standpoint, is many grains contain gluten (not just wheat), and gluten can be a filler or additive for other ingredients too! Always look for the certified “gluten free” seal, and don’t just rely on the ingredients list to determine whether something has gluten or not.
✘ Some places that gluten likes to hide: soy sauce, colorings, garlic salt, onion salt, some mustard powders, flavored teas and coffees, hydrolyzed proteins, anything with MSG, modified food starch, malt, or graham flour.
Red Flag 4- Oils
We all need plentiful fats to keep our bodies and brains healthy, but it’s important that you’re ingesting natural, safe oils, and not processed or toxic ones! Despite what the food lobby wants you to think, margarines and butter alternatives are NOT healthy at all, and “vegetable oil” is neither natural nor good for you. Always look to fat sources that occur in nature, not the ones made in factories, and definitely steer clear of trans fats! And beware- food companies are now touting "0 trans fats," even with partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients- another good reason not to take the nutrition facts label at face value, but to investigate the ingredient list in detail!
✔︎ Oils and fats that are safe and stable, even when heated include: coconut oil, butter, ghee, tallow, lard, and essentially any animal fat.
✔︎ Oils and fats that are safe at cool or room temp (they may break down in high heat) include: avocado oil, nut oils (macadamia, walnut, pecan), olive oil, and sesame oil.
✘ Oils and fats that are toxic and should be avoided whenever possible include: “buttery spreads” and margarines, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil (aka rapeseed oil), sunflower oil, and vegetable oil or oil blends.
Red Flag 5- Flavorings and Dyes
The slippery slope leads us further down, to the land of dyes, colorings, and flavorings, one of the scariest places of all. I’m just gonna say it- none of these ingredients are natural or safe- they are all made in a laboratory, and most have nasty effects on your body (that we know of!). Don’t fall for the food industry’s trick- they know you’re more likely to buy something that has “natural flavor” than something that has “artificial flavor,” but the truth is, neither is safe and the distinction between them is quite arbitrary. In fact, companies aren’t even required to tell you what goes into their “flavoring” at all!
Mind you, these are things that the FDA has “approved” for your consumption, and can show up in foods, drinks, cosmetics, and medicines, so check all your labels!
✘ Some of these chemicals to watch out for: Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, FD&C Lakes (combination of colors), Citrus Red 2, caramel coloring, and anything labeled “artificial color.”
Red Flag 6- Other additives
It seems like every month or so, a new research study comes out about the dangers of another food additive. These ingredients can range from the totally innocuous to the downright toxic, so I would recommend doing further research on the additives that may be in your food. This article does a pretty good job of going through the major players.
✘ Some common additives that you may want to avoid include: soy lecithin, MSG, nitrates and nitrites, sulfites, transglutaminase, carageenan, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, liquid smoke, and of course, anything from the list of dyes and flavorings.
Red Flag 7- Allergens
Fortunately, this one is pretty easy to spot in most food ingredient lists. You will usually see them spelled out (often in bold) at the bottom of the main ingredient list, or listed (in bold) within the ingredients list. These are common allergens like wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, nuts, eggs, fish, and occasionally things like coconut, shrimp, and seeds. I use this as a shortcut a lot of the time- like the first hoop a food must jump through to meet my dietary standards. It can save a lot of time!
The allergen warning is helpful, even if you don’t have clinically-significant food allergies, so use it to steer yourself towards healthier choices.
Red Flag 8- GMOs
Lately, I’ve noticed more and more foods sporting a little line of text on the back of the label, indicating that it has been produced or partially produced with genetic engineering. Thanks to food safety advocates, companies are now being required to tell us if they’ve used GMOs in their products. Hooray! They do try to hide it a bit though, so keep your eyes peeled for this one. You’ll find that if you shop only in health food stores or only eat organic, you won’t run into any foods with this on the label, but it never hurts to check it out!
High five, friend- you made it! I know that reading food ingredients can be daunting, especially with the myriad of food choices out there these days. Remember to go slowly, do further research (just watch out for industry-funded “research”), and identify the ingredients you want to stay away from. Before you know it, you’ll be a food super-sleuth! So head over to your pantry and get started.
Of course, if you need more help deciphering food labels, and making healthy food choices for your body, I offer mentoring services to get you on the path towards your most vibrant self!
What are some of your favorite clean-label foods? Tell me in the comments!
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~