Decoding Food Labels
What does it all mean?!
While strolling through the store picking up your weekly groceries, it’s easy to fall into the trap of snatching up products that are flashing at you from the shelves with phrases like “Zero Calories,” “20g of Whole Grains per Serving,” or “All Natural” if you are trying to eat a healthy diet. I know my mom has a bad habit of buying products because of the positive, yet misleading, advertisements on the front of food and beverage packages…Then I filter through her pantry and refrigerator throwing all the junk away. 🙂 I believe knowledge is power.
Unfortunately advertising on food and beverages has little regulation by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). I am a HUGE proponent of reading ingredient lists on ALL products because of this. It is also important to remember that just because products do have these tag lines on their labels does not necessarily mean they are bad.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid buying products in which you do not recognize all the ingredients as plant-based, as much as possible. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, it is likely your body will not recognize it either, and thus won’t know how to digest it. When your body doesn’t know what to do with a substance you’re giving it, it will typically store it as fat.
To help you ward off the deceptive advertisements during your next trip to the grocery store, I came up with a short list of commonly used advertisements to be cautious of:
Zero Calories: most often seen on sweet beverages, and typically indicating the product is sweetened with Sucralose, Aspartame, or sometimes Saccharin, or alcohol based sweeteners.
Sucralose (Splenda) is created in a lab by adding chlorine molecules to sugar. Sucralose messes with the good gut bacteria in your digestive tract, and releases a toxin when heated to high temperatures. Initial studies showed the Sucralose passed through your body without being digested at all, but more recent studies show the body does try to metabolize it.
Aspartame (Equal) is bad bad bad news for your body, and is the “artificial sweetener” used to sweeten most diet sodas, gum, and more. It disgusts me that Aspartame is even legal. When your body encounters Aspartame, it breaks it down into Formaldehyde, a deadly neurotoxin, AKA what embalmers put in corpses to slow decomposition…you do not want that floating around in your very alive body! Some side effects of Aspartame consumption are blindness, seizures, depression, dizziness, and irritability. Studies have also linked Aspartame to diabetes and brain cancer.
Stevia: zero calories, from a Stevia plant, very concentrated sweet flavor so you don’t need much to get the sweet flavor
Date/Coconut Palm/Maple Sugar: the sugar in dates and coconuts extracted and dehydrated.
Honey: if you’re not vegan, the sweetness in honey is also much more concentrated than cane sugar, so you don’t need much
*Side note: I believe limiting all sweeteners, natural and artificial, is most healthy for your body, because sugar is incredibly addicting. Even when you’re not consuming “real” sugar from a sugar cane, alternative sweeteners (including, but not limited to, all of the above) leave your body craving more sugar/sweetener. On the other hand, I understand much of this nutrition “stuff” is easier said than done. I still have a fervent sweet tooth, so when I do crave sweets, I try to opt for the healthiest possible treat.
Zero Trans-fat: “zero” trans-fat may not really mean zero. As long as there is half a gram or less than per serving the FDA allows companies to claim “zero.” To identify whether a product actually has trans-fat, look for “partially hydrogenated” oil or shortening in the ingredients list.
In case you missed the whole uproar regarding trans-fat starting a few years ago, it is a process large manufactures use to make fat/oil solid at room temperature. They do so by pumping hydrogen molecules into fat molecules, thereby increasing products’ shelf life. Trans-fat lowers your HDL (good cholesterol) and raises your LDL (bad cholesterol), increasing risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health issues. And since the body has no idea what to do with this completely man-made substance, it gets immediately stored as fat.
_X_ Servings of Whole Grains: Probably a better choice than without any whole grains, but likely enriched flours. Because enriched flour is refined and (usually) bleached, it is artificially enhanced by the vitamins and minerals that were destroyed during processing. The flour is stripped down to starch. Your body will react the way it does to other condensed forms of starch, by spiking blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels quickly increase, it is followed by a crash in energy levels. Even if a sugary cereal has the same amount of whole grain servings as a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal topped with fruit, the oatmeal is the better choice. Adding the whole grains, whether they are enriched or not, does not rid the product of the other bad for you additives, like trans-fats and sugars.
All-Natural: means nada. There is hardly any regulation whatsoever on the claim of “all natural,” by the FDA or the Federal Trade Commission. As long as a product doesn’t have “synthetic” substances in it, it can be claimed as all-natural. From the FDA website:
“FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
Simply put, “all-natural” products can still contain a variety of lab-produced “natural” flavorings and colors, preservatives, additives, and other processed ingredients unfamiliar to your body.
Free Range: the FDA definition of free range requires the animal to get exposure to fresh air; any “fresh” air. (Yes, that means non free range often never see the light of day, but I will save that for another rant :)). The “fresh” air that these animals are getting could also be contaminated by the fecal matter particles from the thousands of other animals they are stuffed into their cages with. There is also no regulation on the size of the animals’ so called “free range” space. They are still typically cooped up in tiny cages, and doped up with growth hormones and antibiotics.
I highly suggest, as much as possible, you get your eggs and meat from a trustworthy, and animal friendly, local source. Fresh meat can be stored in the freezer for up to a year, and chickens lay eggs even during the coldest winter days. A carton of farm fresh eggs can last over a month. Fun fact: the “fresh” eggs at the grocery usually are about a month old. Knowing where your meat comes from also can help you ensure the animals aren’t being pumped full of antibiotics, growth hormones, Prozac, caffeine, Benadryl, and more, that go directly into your body when you eat them! Use Google to find a local rancher in your area. If you live in the central Ohio area, leave a comment and I can give you lots of local producers!
Fat Free: omitted fat is usually compensated by other way more harmful ingredients (sugars, thickeners, flour, and/or salt, etc.). “Fat free” foods can also be less tasty, leaving you unsatisfied, and eating larger quantities. Fat free also does not necessarily mean lower calories, if that’s what you’re going for. Fat is not an enemy to your body. Good fats are essential to have a healthy body and mind, and make you feel much more satiated. I LOVE good fatty foods – nuts, avocados, coconut! Mmmm!
Bottom line: READ YOUR FOOD & BEVERAGE INGREDIENTS LISTS. The more processed, the worse the food is for your body. Don’t focus so much on the number of calories per serving. Ingredients will give you a true indication of whether you are eating real food or not.
Are there other health advertisements you’re curious about? Just ask!
Happy (& Healthy) Grocery Shopping!