How to Read Labels

Labels don’t mean anything!

Sugar Free! Gluten Free! Vegan! Paleo! Dairy Free! All Natural! Low Fat!

When we shop, we are overwhelmed by a plethora of promises that what we are about to put in our cart is healthy. None of these definitions though seems to fully encompass the attributes that really matter: natural, whole, real.

Sometimes, as a result of the misleading claims mentioned above, we end up buying ‘gluten-free’ scones loaded with trans fats, ‘vegan’ muffins that are full of sugar and ‘sugar-free’ cookies dyed with artificial colorings and sweetened with aspartame.

The food industry does an amazing job in promoting what isn’t and in minimizing what shouldn’t be in there. But the one thing we can do in order to protect ourselves is to start flipping the package upside down and master our art of reading labels.

I hear your concerns. Going to the grocery store and feeling like we need to be Sherlock Holmes is not the most enjoyable activity. BUT, being aware and in control of the food we put in our house will protect ourselves and our families from fake food and make us feel empowered to and live a healthier, more natural life!

Food labels can be tricky to decipher. Nutrition facts, calories, serving sizes, daily values, allergens… it’s hard to keep up with all those numbers. But the one part that we really need to focus on is the List of Ingredients.

In fact, even when the nutrition facts look apparently healthy or low in calories, the ingredient list can include a bunch of chemicals and substances we can’t physically identify nor pronounce.

1. Less is Best!

To save you time AND solve 90% of your concerns, here’s my first piece of advice: Less is best! Before you even start reading, simply glimpse at the number of ingredients. If they are more than 15, chances are that only half of them are ‘natural, ‘simple’ and ‘real’. After a 1 second investigation, you are ready to make your choice and put the product back on the shelf. Easy right?

2. Spot the ‘unreal’: Bark Tree & Beaver Butt

When a food label passes the first test and you decide it’s worth a read, there are quite a few substances you should look out for. As I invite you to do your own research (nothing is more stirring than the discoveries you make on your own), I am going to share here some of the ingredients I always look out for.

Artificial Colorings: Yellow #2, Red #5 or Blue Lake #40 are some the names. Their actual sources are coal tar and petrochemicals. The artificial colors that go into our plates are dangerous to our health. Given that their only purpose is cosmetic, removing them from our diet is a no-brainer.

Artificial AND Natural Flavors: While it’s pretty intuitive that the first ones are – you guessed it – ‘artificial’, not as spontaneous it is to put the ‘natural’ ones under test. We all know for example that MSG, the monosodium glutamate often found in Asian style seasonings and sauces, it’s a dangerous neurotoxin able to shrivel and kill brain cells in the hypothalamus. But it’s easy to assume that, because they don’t contain petroleum and other chemicals, Natural Flavors are much better. In fact, because food companies are not required to specify what these are, we can expect anything! Even beaver’s butt!

According to the regulations of the FDA, natural flavors can include any “flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products”.

Because nature’s kingdom is wide, the sky is the limit when we talk about ‘natural flavors’. The food industry can use virtually anything found in nature (including genetically engineered organisms – GMO) in their products. We go so far as to find beaver’s butt (castoreum) in our ‘naturally flavored’ food!

Yes, you read that right. Castoreum is an odoriferous secretion found in two sacs between the anus and the external genitals of beavers. As the food industry discovered it tastes kind of fruity, they started using it to replace real (and more expansive) vanilla, strawberries and raspberries in ice creams, baked goods etc. This is just one of the wonders hidden behind the label ‘natural flavor’. So stay away from them: their only purpose is to trigger our sense of taste and get us addicted to processed food.

Cellulose: This substance, commonly used as a thickener in both non-organic and organic products, consists of minuscule pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers. It’s a cheap replacement for more expansive ingredients like oil or flour and it’s often used in shredded and grated cheeses, spices and powdered drink mixes. If you don’t feel like eating trees, skip it.

Artificial Sweeteners: Worse than sugar there’s only… ‘artificial’ sugar! Aspartame, Glutamate, Saccharin Sucralose (Splenda), Sorbitol, Acesulfame-K, Maltodextrin.

3. Preservatives: Yoga Mats or Breast Implants?

We read ‘preservative’ and it doesn’t sound that harmful.
We read silicon, formaldehyde, petroleum and plastic and our perception changes a bit.
Real food is fresh. Naturally it’s not supposed to last longer than three or four days. When buying something, ask yourself how long it would last if you prepared it at home. Most likely it’s only a few days.

So, that bread with a 30 day shelf life bread you are about to buy probably received some artificial help.

As I invite you to boycott food containing all kinds of preservatives, I would like you to read a bit more about some of the most used and (dangerous) ones.

Dimethylpolysiloxane: Commonly used as a filler fluid in breast implants, aquarium sealants and adhesives, dimethylpolysiloxane contains several different chemicals including formaldehyde, one of the most toxic substances on earth! Could you imagine that the same ingredient is used a food additive, anti-foaming and anti-caking agent in fountain drinks andFrench fries?

Although being linked to allergies, brain damage, cancer, and auto-immune disorders, fast foods use it in soups and syrups, in chewing gums and Mc Donalds Chicken Nuggets! Make yourself a favor: look out for it.

Azodicarbonamide: This chemical commonly used in the production of foamed plastics like yoga mats, shoe soles and floor mats, turned out to be a great texture enhancer, able to make packaged bread look freshly baked. No wonder food companies use it as a dough conditioner in many of their baked goods. Starbucks croissants and Subway 9 Grain Bread loaves are some of the many products featuring this tasty chemical. Read the labels and say no to plastic bread.

Citric Acid: Its name sounds natural and makes us think of citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons. But this common ingredient, used to extend the shelf life of countless processed foods, is not what we think it is.

Actually squeezing limes and lemons would be too expansive for the food industry, which found a great alternative to its production by fermenting cane sugar or molasses with the fungus Aspergillus niger.

Even though it tastes similar to lemon juice, citric acid looks like a white powder that has nothing to do with fruit. Since sugar and molasses come from mostly genetically modified corn and sugar beets, citric acid as a result is a genetically engineered products as well. It is known to irritate the digestive system, causing heartburn and damage to the mucous membrane of the stomach. Why risking? Squeeze a lemon instead!

4. Off-Limit Oils. What is Can-O-L-A exactly ?

Vegetable oils, such as soybean, cottonseed, corn, canola and safflower, can’t be extracted just by pressing (like extra virgin Olive Oil or Coconut Oil), they must be chemically extracted from the plants with a solvent named hexane and then deodorized and altered.

Because they are highly processed, these oils are highly inflammatory for our body and can contribute to many degenerative diseases.

As this wasn’t enough, these oils derive from some of the most genetically modified crops and contain a good amount of saturated fat, which stimulates the liver to produce more cholesterol.

In particular, the oil I always look out for is ‘canola’. When our goal is to only eat ‘real’, ‘natural’ food, we can’t let an ingredient engineered in a lab sneak into our plates. Can.o.l.a in fact is a made-up word that stands for “Canadian Oil Low Acid”. In the 80‘s, after discovering that rapeseed oil contains high amounts of erucic acid, which is poisonous to the body and associated with heart damage, they thought about genetically modifying the plant to lower its toxicity.

The hybrid version of rapeseed they got to, canola, is first treated with high levels of pesticides, then heated and processed with a petroleum solvent to extract the oil, lastly processed with acid to remove the solids that occur during the first processing. At this point, the newly created canola oil must be treated with more chemicals to improve color and separate the different parts of the oil. But it doesn’t end here: since the chemical process has created a harsh smell, now the oil must be chemically deodorized to be palatable.

Cold pressing olives and coconuts sounds so much more natural, doesn’t it?! Watch out when eating out: because Canola Oil is a cheap product to manufacture, it’s used in many packaged foods, even when labeled as healthy! And when you are out at a restaurant… always ask what oil they use and either request Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Coconut Oil…. or no oil at all!

5. Made in a lab or grown on a tree?

GMOs are any living organism that has had its genetic material modified through human scientific interference. In order to increase the resistance to disease and herbicides of these organisms, foreign genes were forced into their DNA, such as bacteria and viruses that have never been in the human food supply. Genetically Modified Organisms have been linked to several types of potential health effects: from the production of new allergens, to increased toxicity and antibiotic resistance. So, as you can imagine, I try my best to remove the most common genetically modified foods from my shopping list.

On top the list, as the most heavily genetically modified foods in the world, are Canola, Cottonseed, Corn, Soy and Alfalfa.

Also, two different species of yellow squash and zucchini were genetically modified with the insertion of a toxic protein that makes them insect resistant. The problem is that some of the insecticide is making its way into our bodies rather than being broken down and excreted!

Tomatoes have been genetically engineered as well for longer shelf life, preventing them from easily rotting and degrading. In a test conducted to determine the safety of GM tomatoes, some animal subjects died within a few weeks after consumption.

Hawaiian and Chinese papayas were modified to be naturally resistant to Papaya Ringspot virus and to delay the maturity of the fruit, in order to give suppliers more time to ship it to supermarkets.

Rice, unfortunately, has been genetically modified as well in order to contain a higher amount of vitamin A. As a result, it has been proven to cause allergic reactions. And another starch commonly used in baking has been modified to be virus and pesticide resistant: Cassava, also known as Tapioca. So be careful, when you read a food label: if it says ”modified tapioca starch”, put it back on the shelf!

Lastly, one of the most pervasive GM products on the market is Sugar Beet, that makes up half of the U.S. sugar production, and 95% of the country’s sugar beet market. So, in addiction to the many reasons why we must eliminate sugar from our diet (and we’ll talk about them in a second), keep in mind: it’s also one of the most genetically modified foods!

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