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How to read food labels and buy really healthy food

100% Natural Label
October 13, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

If you were trying to eat a more nutritious diet, the first thing you would do is spend most of your time in the organic section of your product aisle. But, next, you’d look for foods with healthy looking ingredient and nutrition labels. You’d look for things like all natural, low sugar, low sodium, multigrain, and natural flavoring. Those sure sound healthy, but I have some bad news for you. The labels on a lot of those health foods are trying to trick you into thinking they are something they’re not. I’m here to help you decipher the deception and let you know what to look for, so nothing gets in the way of your plan to eat better.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time (well before we were alive) when all food was what it was. Produce wasn’t genetically modified, farm animals weren’t stuffed with growth hormones, sugar wasn’t added to practically everything, and so on. As our country grew, especially after World War II, so did the technology to cheaply process and deliver food across large swaths of land to meet the demands of a growing population. Preservatives and artificial ingredients were invented and added to foods, and the Food & Drug Administration continues to play catch up trying to discern the good from the bad.

Now, the deception of food manufacturers isn’t about what’s not mentioned on the label, but the trickery of what is mentioned on the label—a classic case of smoke and mirrors that is taking advantage of your desire to eat healthy. Here are some of the biggest offenders and what you can look for to make sure what you are buying is in fact what is says it is.

Secret Sugars

Sugars are the emptiest of calories and the worst ones for you. And sugar is added to practically everything. Mindful of a growing body of health-conscious shoppers, food manufacturers added these phrases to the label to give you the impression that the food is healthy: “no sugar added,” “reduced sugar,” and “sugar free.”

“No sugar added” usually means that no additional sugar has been added to something that’s already sweet to begin with. You can find this phrase a lot on fruit juices that already have upwards of 20 grams of sugar per serving to begin with and little to no nutritional value behind it. Speaking of juices, it’s common to see “100% juice” on the label, but a lot of that is filler concentrated juice (i.e. even more sugar) that is devoid of much nutritional value, such as pear, white grape, and apple juices.

“Reduced sugar” sounds like a healthy option too, but most foods labeled “reduced sugar” already have too much sugar in them. That’s why they are reducing the sugar to begin with! Problem is, it’s usually not enough. The same goes for “reduced sodium” foods, too.

“Sugar free” certainly sounds like the healthiest option, but it’s often the least. Food manufacturers know that is their product has less flavor than a competitor’s, then they will lose money. Therefore, the flavor in “sugar free” foods and beverages are made from artificial ingredients or extra carbohydrates.

When watching your sugar intake, look out for: high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, agave nectar, sorghum, barley malt, evaporated cane juice, sucralose, maltose, galactose… Basically, anything with “-ose” at the end of it. They’re sugars and carbs that have no business in those foods.

Natural v Organic

Speaking of natural, another big offender is the term “natural.” I think it’s the most misleading term in the entire food industry. The word itself implies something pure, clean, and wholesome. At best, natural foods are minimally processed and do not contain artificial flavors, hormones, or antibiotics. At worst, you can read the term “castoreum” on the list of ingredients and not even know you are eating secretions from a beaver’s anal glands (it’s been used as a “natural flavoring” for vanilla for more than 80 years). Actually, that’s not the worst. Other “natural ingredients” are GMOs, pesticides and herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics, coal tar (“yellow #5”), boiled beetles (“carmine”), and more.

And food manufacturers can get away with it because neither the FDA nor the USDA have rules and regulations for products labeled as “natural.” That means if food manufacturers think that adding high-fructose corn syrup to your bread is “all natural,” then they have every right to do so.

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Given the choice between natural or organic, go organic every time. By the FDA’s definition of “organic,” there are still some loopholes that allow for a very small percentage of in-organic ingredients, but by far organic foods are the healthier option.

“Multigrain vs. Made with Whole Grains vs. 100% Whole Grain”

In the past decade, the concept of whole grains has been engrained (pun intended) into our heads as the healthy way to eat carbs. Whole grain means that all parts of a grain kernel are used—the bran, germ, and endosperm. Foods that are not whole grain use only one or two of them, and the result is a processed product diluted of natural fibers, a loaf of empty carbs.

When consumers began seeking out whole grain foods, food manufacturers in turn made some changes. By that, I mean they changed what was written on the label, not what is in the food itself. Two major examples…

First, “multigrain.” All that means is that a food product has more than one type of grain in it. A loaf of processed (“enriched”) wheat bread with a smattering of oats baked into the crust is technically multigrain because it has wheat and oats in it. Same goes with multigrain crackers, cereals, and so on.

Second, “made with whole grains.” Saying that something is made with whole grains is like saying a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup is made with mushrooms. Sure, it has a speck of mushrooms in it, but the rest is a processed, gelatinous sodium bomb! This sleight of hand fools people into thinking they are buying whole grain food but in reality they are only buying food made with a very small amount of whole grains.

Look for foods that are made with “100% whole grains.”

Be Label Literate

It’s a shame that we have to buy food from a defensive standpoint. I wish we could live in a world where a chicken sandwich is just a chicken sandwich, not a hormone-injected processed meat patty slapped between two slices of genetically modified processed wheat. But that’s the world we live in today. You can’t stop it all from happening but you can stop this junk from entering your body.

As you probably know already, I care deeply about what you are eating because it has a direct effect on your health. Years of practice and research has taught me that when you learn how to read food labels, you can stop a lot of the side effects of a poor diet – mainly inflammation, diabetes, and obesity.



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