How to Decode Food Labels Print
Monday, June 08, 2009

In my new book, Plan-D, I detail the importance of reading ingredient lists and help you navigate the grocery store to learn how to live processed-free in a processed-food world.

When you shop for food, you should not be particularly interested in whether or not the product is labeled "low-fat", "low-cholesterol," or "sugar-free." And don't give those wholesome claims of "Heart Healthy," and "Trans-Fat Free," on the front of packages a second glance. Bypass the Nutrition Fact Panel also. Instead, you should be scanning the package for only one thing: the ingredient list.

If the ingredients themselves don't meet the mark of nutritional excellence, then there is really no point in checking out the calories or the fat grams. And if the ingredients are acceptable, meaning there aren't too many of them and they are all whole food ingredients with names you can pronounce, then the numbers are probably going to be within a reasonable range.

Developing this kind of straightforward ingredient list reading savvy is essential for navigating even the natural food markets these days. There are more than 45,000 products seducing you with healthy claims on the packaging. Most of them are false or misleading. Margarines now claim to be "heart healthy" because they contain tiny amounts of vitamin E. Drinks fortified with vitamin A, antioxidants and other nutrients claim they support the immune system, even though they are loaded with sugar (a substance known to interfere with immune response). Cereals and breads boasting "Whole Grain" goodness actually contain more refined enriched flours than they do whole grains. This is why you have to know what to look for on ingredient lists.

When you read an ingredient list, you should only see real whole foods listed. For example, "beans," "tomatoes," or "chicken." You should look for short lists too. Unless it's sprouted grain bread with lots of different whole grains, there should only be five or six ingredients. More than that and you should put it back on the shelf.

One good way to cut to the chase: If it's a lengthy list, look at the top first, then do a detailed read at the very bottom. If you don't see any deal-breakers, in either of these places, it's worth reading on to see whether you've found a truly healthy product - or if something nasty like hydrogenated oil (trans fats) has been sandwiched in the middle.

Here are some of the worst food additives that show up on processed food ingredient lists, and the ones you should be avoiding:

Sodium Benzoate has been shown to damage mitochondrial DNA leading to Parkinson's disease and cancers. Used in sodas, pickles, and sauces.

Potassium Bromate causes cancer and has been banned in many countries but is still legal to use in the U.S. Usually shows up as "bromated flour" or "bromated vegetable oil."

Partially Hydrogenated Oil or Hydrogenated Oil also known as trans fats, these deadly oils destroy cell membranes and have been linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. They usually show up as partially hydrogenated soybean oil or cottonseed oil. Canola oil also contains trans fats, even if it doesn't say partially hydrogenated canola oil. Just because a package claims that it is zero grams trans fat does not mean that it is free of hydrogenated oils. If the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, then the package can claim zero grams. However, only tiny amounts of trans fat can do a lot of damage, so you need to avoid it at all costs.

Mono and Diglycerides - these are similar to trans fats. They're unhealthy forms of chemically produced oils that should not be ingested by humans.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) - this is a chemically altered form of fructose that does not exist anywhere in nature. It has been linked to fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes, and is likely responsible for the worldwide obesity epidemic. It's just another form of sugar and you should avoid it at all costs. Beware, HFCS shows up in whole wheat bread, yogurt, cereals, crackers, soups, ketchup and other so called healthy foods. Read ingredient lists carefully.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) - this is used as an addictive flavor enhancer that affects the mechanism in our brains that tells us to stop eating. As a result of eating MSG, we eat more and we eat faster. Scientists use MSG to induce obesity in laboratory animals. Doesn't it make sense that it would also induce obesity in humans? MSG can be hidden in other food additives, so even if you don't see MSG listed, it may be contained in any other these following names: autolyzed yeast extract, natural flavorings, spices, soy extract, protein isolate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.

My new book Plan-D, has an extensive list of other food additives you need to beware of. The bottom line is that you need to become your own best advocate when it comes to packaged foods. Not all packaged foods are unhealthy or bad, but you have to know how to choose the good ones. There are some good sprouted grain bread products, canned beans, frozen organic meals, and nut butters that are truly healthy. But to pick the winners, you have to be prepared to read some fine print–and ignore a lot of fancy packaging claims.