So, Kevin asked me to pick up some guacamole on the way to the cabin the other day. Even with all of my new training, I sometimes forget to think like a nutritarian. Since I wasn’t eating it, it didn’t occur to me to get simple AVOCADOS (duh!) to make it myself, instead of buying guacamole! Furthermore, I forgot to read the label. Doggone it, I know better! It didn’t take long before I was reminded that reading labels is mandatory when you care what you put in your body. Kevin took one bite and spit it out, saying, “I don’t know what that is but it’s not guacamole!” Sure enough, the “guacamole” was made with less than 2% avocado. Gross! Funny enough, I hopped online and found this lawsuit from 2006 from an angry consumer who felt duped. To be clear, I felt stupid for not reading the label, not duped. As I dive deeper and deeper into this journey called health, I become more vigilant and I fully consider it my responsibility to know what I am putting in my body by simply reading, researching and choosing.
I’ve learned the bottom line is: if you didn’t make the dish yourself, you cannot trust which ingredients may have been used. Seriously, People! Food manufacturers have ninja skills when it comes to taking potentially healthy ingredients and negating them by adding what Americans have come to love most: sugars, salts and fats. The only way to be sure of what you are consuming is to read the labels, carefully. But even when you sift through the mile-long scientific-sounding terms with tongue-twisting names, it’s hard to decipher what they mean. Often, the nastiest of ingredients are “masked” with a more natural sounding term. I’ll never forget watching a Wonder Bread commercial several years ago where the voiceover said “one loaf has all the niacin of 60 oranges”. I was furious. I thought “who the hell eats white bread for the niacin”? And of course now, I just want to know why anyone eats white bread for anything!
If you’re not ready to abandon the processed food aisles altogether, here are some tips for label deciphering:
If most of the fat content comes from healthy unsaturated fat, you’re probably good to go. If the fat is mainly saturated and/or the product has any trans fat, put it back on the shelf. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of “good” HDL cholesterol—a double health whammy.
Don’t be fooled by a label that lists 0 grams (g) trans fat. Because of a labeling loophole, a product can contain up to 0.5g trans fat per serving and say it has none. Check the ingredient list: If it includes partially hydrogenated oil, then there is trans fat in there. Shortening is another source of trans fat.
Excess sodium can raise blood pressure, and cause inflammation, which increases heart disease risk, and is often a sign of a more highly processed (not so good for you) food. A good rule of thumb, compliments of Dr. Fuhrman, is to avoid packaged foods that contain more milligrams (mg) of sodium than the number of calories.
Look for at least 3g per serving in any product that contains grains, including bread, crackers, pasta and even some soups.
The amounts shown on the label refer to a single serving. If you tend to eat more than the listed serving size in a single sitting, do the math to get the right numbers.
For all you calorie counters out there, you may feel this is the first and most important stop on the label. But a higher-calorie food might be worth eating if it also contains lots of nutrients… remember, you are looking for the most nutritional bang for your calorie buck.
This number doesn’t distinguish between naturally occurring sugars (like lactose in milk or fructose in fruit) and added sugar (like high-fructose corn syrup or brown rice syrup). A better move: Look at the ingredients for sources of added sugar.
Look for the words sugar, as in palm sugar or invert sugar; sweetener, as in corn sweetener; or syrup, as in brown rice syrup or malt syrup. Also watch for words ending in “ose” such as fructose or glucose.
Ingredients are ordered by volume, so the higher up on the list an ingredient is, the more of it a product contains. This is an easy way to spot foods that include a lot of added sugar. If sugar is one of the first two ingredients, don’t bring it home.
But this method isn’t foolproof. Manufacturers will often split up sugar into dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, cane crystals and so on, so none of them are the first ingredient, even though if you added them up, they would be. It is a good idea to consider avoiding any product if there is sugar in more than one form.
To pick out heart-healthy and fiber-rich whole grains, look for the word “whole” before the name of any grain, as in whole wheat. Popcorn, oatmeal and quinoa are also considered whole grains. Beware if you notice the word “enriched” before a grain, it’s a glaring sign the grain has been refined, which means it has been stripped of the germ and bran, which pack most of the grain’s nutrients, including fiber.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t define “all natural,” although food makers won’t have repercussions as long as so-labeled food doesn’t contain added colors, artificial flavors, or “synthetic substances.” That means there’s room for interpretation.
So a food labeled “natural” may contain preservatives or be injected with sodium, in the case of raw chicken. “Some natural products will have high fructose corn syrup and companies will argue that since it comes from corn, it’s healthy,” says Stephan Gardner, director of litigation at the Center of Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “Well, that isn’t true.”
This is a notoriously misleading label. When the dangers of saturated and trans fat became clear, the market was flooded with products that touted their fat-free status. The problem? They sometimes contained nearly as many calories as full-fat versions. And just because it says it’s fat free, doesn’t mean you are in the clear. Packages could say it’s fat free, but be loaded with sugar, and sugar-free products could be loaded with fat. For instance . . . Jelly beans? Yup! Fat free. All of them; and always have been. Licorice too! Seriously, fat free means NOTHING.
Oh, and let’s not forget “flavored.” If anything is labeled as “flavored,” it actual is a warning that the product doesn’t contain the real deal. In fact it probably means it doesn’t.
Here’s the best tip of all: Real food doesn’t have labels! Eat Nutritarian and you don’t have to be concerned with the pitfalls.