Nutrition Labels Made Easy (March 17, 2015)
Most people who are at least semi-conscious are aware of the optimistically named “nutrition” labels on the packaging of anything remotely edible you buy these days. Labels are useful, and I look forward to the day when even fruits and vegetables have to be labeled at least as to their origin. (Maybe it’s just me, but I want to know if that organic mango is from California, Argentina or China, particularly if I’m having to take out a second mortgage to pay for it.) But it is amazing what you can lie about in plain sight, and food manufacturers are no stranger to this. Joseph Goebbels is credited with having stated that truths are the most effective form of propaganda, which I believe he said right before he moved to America and began selling children's breakfast cereals.
Anyway, I’d like to tell you what I do when I pick up a new package of Something and am trying to decide whether or not to buy it.
To start with, just ignore the first part of the label entirely and go directly to the ingredient list at the very end. It is probably in smaller print than the label, and the smaller the print the more likely it is to contain something horrendous. Read this list. At least read the first few ingredients. If you cannot read it because the font is so small, you must bring your reading glasses to the market. This is because the only information you really have about what you are buying is what the manufacturer is being forced to disclose by the Government. Sad, but true.
Since ingredients have to be listed in order of weight, the first item is the biggest part of your food product. So “tomatoes” better be the first ingredient on a can of tomato sauce or spaghetti sauce, “wheat” on bread, etc. etc. This is less common than you might think. If you start looking at jars of fruit preserves, you will quickly realize that very often “grape juice” or some other juice is the first ingredient, with sugar and pectin (a common thickener) next, and then maybe “blueberry flavoring” at the end IF YOU ARE LUCKY. Spaghetti sauce often has some form of sugar as the first (or second) ingredient. And I’m still recovering from reading the label on the loaf of Udi’s Gluten Free Whole Grain bread that listed "water" and "tapioca starch” as the first two ingredients
Following logically from this, if you are buying this item because of some particular characteristic promoted on its front, you might want to see how much of that ingredient is actually present in the package. Meaning if the box of flaxseed crackers has “salt” listed before “flaxseed” in the ingredient list, you might want to give the thing a pass. And if there are little hard blue things in that box of blueberry muffin mix but no dried blueberries listed on the package, I don’t even want to know what they are, never mind swallow them.
Be suspicious when there are words in the ingredient list that you are unfamiliar with, especially if they are flowery generalizations ("cultured celery extract" is really sodium nitrite) or frankly chemical-sounding (butylated hydroxyanisole). Here is an excellent rule: Every unfamiliar substance present is another reason NOT to buy the thing.
The shorter the list of ingredients, of course, the better. Unless it just says “sugar”. Or "palm oil and natural flavorings". You know what a “natural flavoring” usually is? SUGAR. If you're lucky. It might be castoreum. I'm not even going to tell you what THAT is.
Back to the top of the label, there is good information there too, but there are many ways to game this section. For example, many foods don’t have their “serving size” mandated, and if you’ve got too much of something in your food (like calories) you can tweak the serving size to disguise this. So look at the serving size/servings per container. I’ve seen muffins where the serving size was “1/3 muffin”. The amounts of sodium, trans fat and especially calories can be made to look less threatening this way.
Do take a passing glance at the sodium, by the way. Whether too much sodium is actually bad for you is still a bit controversial. But if something contains more than 50% of your maximum allowed sodium per day (you can find that percentage in the column on the far right, titled “Daily Value”), it should at least make you sit up and say howdy. There is a LOT of sodium in processed food, far more than you would eat if you were just eating regular whole foods. Controversy aside, that fact in itself is enough to make one wary.
If you aren’t a label expert, the whole fat/protein/carbohydrate thing can make your eyes cross. This is also where a lot of the subterfuge takes place. It is possible to assemble a “food” using ingredients with practically nonexistent nutrition that looks great on the label. You can pump it full of artificial vitamins, for example, and make it look like you’re buying a healthy food when actually someone just tossed a huge vitamin pill into the vat at some stage of its manufacture. But it can still be useful. For example, if you look on a package of Trader Joe’s uncured hot dogs, you see that the first ingredient is “beef” and that actually the ingredient list is fairly short with no mysterious substances. However, if you shoot back up to the start of the food label and see that each hot dog has 190 calories and 160 of those are from fat, clearly that “beef” is mostly “beef fat” and you should hastily put it back.
I hope you find all this somewhat useful. You could write a book about reading nutrition labels, and I’m sure that someone has, so I don’t want to go on and on. But I would like to add that someone once offered me the very useful guideline “If it sounds weird, it probably IS weird.” This is not a reason to ignore everything outside of your intellectual comfort zone, but it is always a good reason to listen to any alarms that go off in your head. Particularly when a food that you know in your heart is not good for you is fervently assuring you otherwise.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2015