If you are trying to adhere to a healthful diet and lifestyle, it is helpful to educate yourself about what foods will support your health better than others. Whereas it should be clear that choosing as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible is the best approach, most people still buy some packaged foods.
I am obsessive about reading labels on packages in order to help me make the best choice I can. But the FDA allows food manufacturers, even for organic products, to take so many liberties in wording and, furthermore, don’t insist that everything in your food be labeled as such that it could be argued that we consumers are being deceived.
Here are some guidelines to help you understand what much of this labeling really means.
“Natural” or “Pure”
The words sound wholesome and even healthful, but whether you are buying chicken or juice or vanilla extract, these words mean practically nothing since there is no official definition for what can be labeled “natural” or “pure.” For example, “natural chicken” just means it is chicken and not play dough. It doesn’t guarantee anything healthful, organic, or good for you. Food labeled “natural” can contain processed white sugar, pesticides, heavy metal toxins, MSG, and lots of other non-natural ingredients. Also note that if you see “natural flavors” listed in the ingredients of a “natural” product, don’t think here’s anything natural about them. Natural flavors are created in a lab and are supposed to imitate flavors found in nature. Not exactly natural.
“Zero Trans Fat”
We all know that consumption of trans-fats is horrible for our health, and food marketers know we want to avoid them. So it is a big selling point to be able to advertise that a product has no trans-fats. But whereas you might think “no” and “zero” mean NONE, the FDA thinks otherwise. Currently, the FDA states that when one serving of a product contains less than 0.5 grams of any nutrient (including trans fat, sugar, or calories), then the amount is considered nutritionally insignificant and can be expressed as “0 grams” on the nutrition facts label. Technically, that is not nothing, and it’s especially not nothing if you eat several servings of the product.
This may not be deceptive, but many people don’t think to look at how many servings are in that bottle of juice or bag of chips. If you only look at the calories and fat grams on the nutrition facts label, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Check the serving size as well since it tends to be smaller than what most people eat or drink. If that bottle of juice contains two serving sizes and you drink the whole thing yourself, you should then double the calories, etc. to get an accurate picture of what you are really consuming.
“Lower” Salt, Sodium, Sugar, Fat, etc.
“Lower” doesn’t mean low. It just means that it contains less than the original product. That can still be a lot if you are trying to cut back. Also, “sugar-free” might mean there’s no sugar, but chances are artificial sweeteners have been added instead. “No sugar added” only means the sweetener used is not sugar, but it could be maple syrup or concentrated fruit, and it doesn’t mean the product is low in grams of sugar per serving. Lastly, I have seen packages labeled “no sugar added” that contain candy and chocolate chips, which most certainly do contain sugar.
Monosodium Glutamate is a known neurotoxin, and many people try to avoid it. However, just because you don’t see MSG listed as an ingredient, that doesn’t mean it’s not in the product. There are a myriad of other additives that are derivatives of MSG, including anything with the words hydrolyzed, autolyzed, yeast extract, and many more. Check out this list for other names to look out for.
“Whole Grain” or “Made with Whole Grains”
If you see this advertised, it’s usually not the case. Technically, anything made from flour is not a true “whole” grain anymore. But let’s just say a particular bread is “made from whole grains.” There’s no law that says how much of the product has to be from whole grains. It can be 2%. Read your ingredients label to make sure the whole grains are the first ingredients listed and then look at the nutrition facts to make sure there is a high fiber (at least three grams) and protein (at least five grams) content per serving. The same rule applies to “made with real fruit.” It probably contains an insignificant amount of actual fruit.
This is a popular “health claim” right now since many people are under the misconception that if something is gluten-free, it is better for you. But unless you have celiac or a gluten intolerance, gluten-free processed foods, like cupcakes, are no better for you than their gluten-containing counterparts. Furthermore, there have been gluten-free products found containing trace amounts of gluten. If the product is processed in a facility that also processes foods containing gluten, there can be cross-contamination. Always look at the allergy statement on the box. If it reads “Made in a facility that processes wheat” or “Made on shared equipment with products containing gluten,” this product is a risk for you.
Almonds grown in the United States are allowed to be labeled “raw” even if they were pasteurized, thereby leaving the almonds not raw and not sproutable. I have seen many packages (including at Trader Joe’s) for “Raw Almonds” which list “pasteurized almonds” in the ingredients. You can only buy truly raw almonds directly from the grower at farmers markets or online. Or look for imported raw, unpasteurized almonds. (I have seen truly raw Italian almonds for sale at a few markets.)
What about the packaging?
There are plenty of “ingredients” which you consume that are part of the packaging and don’t need to be listed at all. The plastic chemical BPA is considered toxic, and it’s no secret that BPA leaches into food from can liners. Yet many companies still use it to line their cans, and they don’t have to tell you. Look for companies not using BPA, including Vital Choice, Eden Organic, Trader Joe’s, and Amy’s. Or choose the same food packaged in glass or tetrapaks. Microwave popcorn bags are lined with a toxic chemical that you would never know about because it’s not an “ingredient,” but you still eat it with your popped popcorn. Do yourself a favor and make your own stovetop popcorn with GMO-free popcorn and coconut oil. It’s delicious and so much better for you than all the chemicals you’ll consume with the packaged ones. Additives that are used as processing aids or serve no technological function in the finished product also don’t have to be listed.
These are not the only examples of how food manufacturers get away with manipulating us into making choices that are not good for us. You are in control of what you eat. Always read your ingredient labels and know what you’re buying. If you don’t recognize an ingredient, your body probably won’t recognize it either, and if it can’t be made in your kitchen, it’s probably not a good idea to eat it. Very often, the more marketing dollars behind a food, the more processed it is. Of course, there’s a way to avoid worrying about all of this altogether. Cut out processed food and fill your cart with real, whole foods and cook from scratch!
Pamela Salzman is a certified holistic health counselor. She shares her approach to nutrition through her natural foods cooking classes and website, a resource for her healthful, family-friendly recipes and nutrition tips. You can also visit Pamela on Facebook and Twitter for more information and great resources.