Food Labels: The Only Thing You Need To Know

by | Sep 23, 2013

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester}

It’s no secret that my favorite foods rarely have labels. Whenever possible I recommend starting with raw ingredients from the produce aisle, fish counter and butcher, and building your meal from scratch. Seasonal ingredients from your local farmers market are better still, and tastier to boot.

But I’m also aware that we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes we find ourselves in circumstances that aren’t particularly conducive to healthy eating. Eventually most of us will end up staring blankly at the back of a plastic container or cardboard box, wondering what evils will descend upon us if we choose this packaged morsel over another.

Food labels have become stupidly complicated, not to mention misleading. Instant oatmeal mixes have “30% more protein” (huh?). Several brands of granola and crackers at my favorite health food store include “love” on their ingredient list (how is this legal?). Products without any animal-based ingredients proudly showcase that they’re “cholesterol free,” as if it were possible for plants to produce cholesterol (or dietary cholesterol even had a measurable impact on your health). And sometimes it seems like every processed food under the sun has the American Heart Association’s stamp of approval (Thanks guys, real helpful.).

Don’t kid yourself, these labels are not about health. They’re about selling more food at higher prices. The data consistently show that people (that includes you and me) are willing to pay more for a product if we think it has a special health benefit. Unless the system changes, expected to be bombarded with misleading food labels for the rest of time.

Fortunately, navigating the insanity is fairly simple.

Do your best to ignore all the front of package health claims assuring you that this high-fiber, low-cholesterol, antioxidant rich product will improve every aspect of your life. Instead flip to the back and look for the one thing that will really tell you how healthy it is, or isn’t: the ingredients.

Real food is made from real ingredients, things you should recognize. Real food is not made with unpronounceable chemicals, dough conditioners, preservatives, or 14 different kinds of sugar. Why does Wonder Bread contain Datem and/or Azodicarbonamide? Because its manufacturers want it to have a shelf life that extends beyond the apocalypse. That way when the zombies run out of brains to eat they can still buy Wonder Bread.

Bizarre chemicals are a telltale sign of preservatives and other ingredients that are added to enhance a food’s sell-ability, not it’s healthfulness. Fake food doesn’t breakdown or go bad because the microorganisms that cause decay cannot thrive on it. It doesn’t support life, theirs or yours. Adding synthetic vitamins does not negate this flaw.

To avoid the traps of food marketers, you have to call their bluff and turn straight to the ingredients. The best packaged foods are more convenient versions of things you could make yourself. Simple foods like trail mix, dehydrated vegetables and fruits, jarred or canned vegetables, frozen fruits and vegetables, and perishable dips like salsa and hummus are at the top of my list of healthy packaged foods, so long as I recognize the majority of the ingredients listed.

You can tell almost everything you need to know about a packaged food by looking at the ingredients. Foods are made from other foods, food-like products are made from synthetic stuff in a lab. The best choices lean more toward real than fake.

The only caveat I’d add is that food manufacturers are not stupid, and many have realized that people distrust foods that contain high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). As a result some of them have replaced this cheap, uber sweet source of sugar with other forms that appear better because they sound natural. Alarms should go off in your head when you see anything that sounds like a sweetener, even if it’s made from fruit or grains.

If it’s impossible to find a version of what you want without added sugar, just try to get the one with as little as possible. Ingredients are listed in order from largest amount (first ingredient) to smallest amount (last ingredient), so if any of the first three to five ingredients are sweeteners you should be suspicious. At this point you can glance at the sugar content and serving size data to see how much sugar you would actually be eating. I try to keep non-dessert foods under 10 grams of sugar per serving (preferably under 5 grams), and anything over 15 grams I consider to be dessert even if it’s a savory food.

There are a handful of decent food companies that go out of their way to make real food from real stuff. But they aren’t easy to find, and the front of package labels and health claims are little help. I dream of the day when ingredient lists are the only information that is allowed on the front of a package. Until then it’s up to us to ignore the health claims and search the package to see what it’s actually made of.

Do you read the ingredients when you buy packaged foods?

Originally published October 10, 2012. 

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34 Responses to “Food Labels: The Only Thing You Need To Know”

  1. Kdekay says:

    Thoughts on shopping at Whole Foods and other “natural” grocers? Although most of my food is fresh veggies, meat, fish, I find that I still am battling against hidden sweeteners and unknown ingredients, especially in condiment items and things like tortillas. Drives me nuts.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I like those stores because they are more likely to carry real products, but you still need to be careful because, like you said, there’s still crap in products that give the illusion of health. Just read carefully and be aware when you’re choosing something that is less than ideal, and don’t make a habit of buying it too often.

    • Nancy says:

      Sadly, I’ve found that too many of the packaged foods at Whole Foods contain really unhealthy ingredients, including MSG (listed by another name). I’m growing increasingly frustrated with Whole Foods.

      Here’s a quote from “There are over 40 food ingredients besides “monosodium glutamate” that contain processed free glutamic acid (MSG). Each, according to the FDA, must be called by its own, unique, “common or usual name.” “Autolyzed yeast,” “maltodextrin,” “hydrolyzed pea protein”, and “sodium caseinate” are the common or usual names of some ingredients that contain MSG. Unlike the ingredient called “monosodium glutamate,” they give the consumer no clue that there is MSG in the ingredient.”

      • Peter says:

        Hi Nancy, I take my food choices pretty seriously, but one thing I never worry too much about is MSG. What makes you feel that this is a major issue?

        You should be aware that many foods inherently contain MSG (or its biochemical equivalent) and that it is the primary component in the “5th taste” known as “savoriness” or “umami”. Meat, cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, soy sauce, etc. all have high levels of natural MSG equivalents and that is what makes them taste savory or umami. Some classic dishes are seemingly engineered for high umami; Caesar Salad, for example, usually includes anchovies (or Worcestershire sauce), parmesan cheese and egg yolk, all natural foods high in umami/MSG. This also likely explains the importance of fermented fish sauces throughout culinary history: Graeco-Roman garrum, Thai/Vietnamese fish sauce, Chinese oyster sauce, English Worcestershire sauce, etc. Check out the Wikipedia articles on Umami and MSG for more information.

        Glutamate, the relevant component of MSG, is a primary amino acid that is used to make all the proteins in your body, so the idea that someone can be “allergic” to it is not biologically plausible. And it is also not plausible that glutamate could be harmful except at unnaturally high levels.

        Of course, if you are concerned with the industrial processes by which synthetic MSG is produced, or with unnaturally high levels that you might find in (just guessing here) something like “Nacho Cheesier Doritos”, then that could be a real concern. But I wouldn’t see the presence of some of these umami flavorings as an automatic problem. I think of MSG as being like salt or sugar; obviously if a product only tastes good because it has a ton of salt and sugar (or MSG), then it’s kind of a lousy product. But it isn’t necessarily dangerous.

      • Thank you Peter! I believed that MSG was bad for along time, until a colleague who is a science writer/editor with advanced education in nutrition science showed me the real science about MSG and how it was long ago disproved. I appreciate your informative response about this topic, further clarifying the often muddy subject of what to eat!

  2. M Yamasaki says:

    But you miss the entire point: labels CAN be about health – body and economic health – for entire regions! I assume this is a thinly-veiled attack on Proposition 37, which Monsanto is spending a record-breaking $40 million dollars to defeat.

    But just remember: letting farmers use heirloom seeds, propagate their own crops, and sell healthy, non-pesticidal produce is GOOD FOR US and GOOD FOR OUR COMMUNITIES. Monsanto has tried to defeat small family farms for years, and has come quite close to it in two dozen states, and if people don’t realize that this is an attack on the way we eat, they’re kidding themselves.

    • Darya Pino says:

      LOL, I’ve said repeatedly that I support Prop 37. But I support it not because I think GMOs are innately unhealthy, but because people have a right to know what is actually in their food.

  3. Katy says:

    I always read labels before buying packaged foods too but then most of the foods I buy are fresh fruits, veggies and cuts of meat. I do have one guilty pleasure though: Asian snacks! I usually shop at an Asian grocery store and I can’t help but wander into the bakery or snack aisles. I do try to practice moderation with those though.

  4. Scott says:

    What brand of trail mix is best? I am a sucker for nuts and the various mixes yet I know many contain sugary ingredients…

    • Darya Pino says:

      Here’s an idea: Next time you want to buy trail mix look at the ingredient list and see if there’s anything sugary. The culprits are usually chocolate or dried fruit that’s been preserved in sugar, like cranberries.

    • James says:

      Or you can make your own trail mix! That’s what I tend to do; I’ll buy a variety of nuts and seeds and mix them up as a snack I carry in my backpack.

  5. julie says:

    I don’t eat too many either, but I read the ingredients on the back. It’s too easy to fool yourself otherwise. When I visit my parents, who are convinced I’ll have a heart attack from full-fat yogurt, though I refuse their candied non-fat inedible yogurt, eat such a high-sugar diet, but don’t know/won’t admit. I can’t eat anything there, not even their cereal. I’m not afraid of sugar, but I have my limits. My dad claims that he can’t read the ingredients without his glasses, so he just goes by the box.

    At this point, I make my own salsa, hot sauce, hummous, salad dressing, etc., and when I buy bread, pasta, stuff I don’t make, I read the ingredients on the package or bulk bin. I don’t care if they call it fruit sugar, sucrose, HFCS, rice syrup, whatever, I just don’t want disgustingly sweet food. Or trans-fat – no excuse for that in this day and age. I wish they’d go back to lard.

  6. Elias says:

    Please show me studies that prove that preservatives added in our food are bad for human health. Your words about “dead food” are as empty as “30% more protein” or “love in ingredients” as food label.
    You say that “fake” food “doesn’t support life, theirs or yours” but you should know its a lie. Fake or real, food contrains carbohydrates, fat and protein, that are converted energy that is used to sustain life of all animals in our world. Lack of certain vitamins or addition of chemicals doesn’t make food unable to do its job. I am all for healthy eating, but please be straigt with your facts.

    • Darya Pino says:

      I’m not arguing that preservatives are innately unhealthy, just that they are a hallmark of food that has been highly processed. All “diseases of civilization” (e.g. diabetes, heart disease, some kinds of cancer, hypertension, etc.) are associated with a diet high in processed foods, and are virtually non-existent in societies where more traditional diets are maintained. Weston Price’s original work (I’m not a huge fan of the foundation) has some great examples. In Defense of Food, by Pollan, is a great reference as well.

  7. Kari says:

    I’ve been reading labels ever since I was seventeen, because that’s how long I’ve been a vegetarian. (I make most of my food from scratch NOW, but in college with two jobs, I sure didn’t.) It’s amazing how many packaged foods that only advertize veggies and beans have stealth broth, as though the entire packaged food industry hasn’t heard of onions or bay leaves.

    I quickly extended my search past chicken parts into other areas though, because I noticed all the stealth sugar. Why would I want sugar in my soup?

    This is not to say that I always eat healthy things. I just want to know about it when I’m not.

  8. Jeff says:

    Great article, very informative. I don’t eat healthy by any means, but I always get a giggle out of the foolish things they put on the front of products. I’d really like to know what products include love in the ingredients list though, I think that’s hilarious. Let’s just hope it’s not physical ‘love’, or I’d suggest buying a different brand.

  9. Nick says:

    Great article, it reminds me of an article I read a few months ago that talked about nutrition labels. The gist of the article was that they are wildly inaccurate, particularly resturant nutritional info. Afterward I checked out some of the labels on the “healthy” food I had at home and was shocked to see that the labels even contradicted themselves – when I added up the calories they should have using the amount of fat/carbs/protien listed they invariably came up to more calories than were shown on the nutrition labels….. No wonder it’s so hard to lose weight. Sticking with “real” food is definitely the best idea!

  10. James says:

    Awesome article! I work at a gym and we go a biggest loser type program. These are the kinds of things I’m always trying to promote to my clients so they they lose weight in a healthy manner. A lot of other trainers just promote eating less when eating HEALTHIER is far more beneficial even if they see rapid weight loss. I’m about to send them all a link to this article, keep up the good work!

    Long term benefits > Short term benefits

  11. Jennifer says:

    I absolutely love your website and have learned so much from you. My diet has slowly changed so dramatically. I’ve found it’s really not that difficult to make homemade black bean or lentil soup to take for lunches and sure beats the processed lunch meat sandwiches or chicken fingers I was buying everyday. I’ve learned cauliflower is delicious, and last night I had spaghetti squash instead of noodles under my sauce for the first time ever. Delicious, I ate one ingredient instead of a list of weird things longer than my arm, and I felt a million times better afterwards! Thank you, Darya!

  12. Jason says:

    My favorite label scam is the flashy “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” right on front. Then you flip it over an the first ingredient is corn syrup.

  13. Mai says:

    Darya Pino,

    This is very interesting post that highlights how the food labels (health claims and package labels) confuses and misleads the consumers to make choices of food. As a student learning about nutrition, I have always been aware of the deceptive ways food labels today trick people into buying their product. As you have mentioned, “products without any animal-based ingredients proudly showcase that they’re “cholesterol free,” as if it were possible for plants to produce cholesterol,” manufacturers do a really good job at presenting only the factual information that favor their marketing even if it is obvious. As you have also mentioned, seeing many processed food with the American Heart Association’s stamp due mislead the consumers to fall into traps. I agree with your suggestions on looking into real food instead of fake ones. I do believe that fresh, raw, real and simple foods are always better and healthier for us even though it does require some time and effort out of our busy lives. As you have concluded that some food companiesdotry to make real food, but I think this could improve more. I view this problem with our trickery labels to be one of major problems in the United States under the topic of public health, especially with statistical rates increasing with diseases caused by unhealthy diets like obesity or diabetes.

    Although your article do present with a good suggestion on food labels, I cannot help but to compare the food labels from my home country, Japan. From my own experience, we do not have healthy food stores like Whole Foods in Japan, nor do we have a section in the super market with organic products. Even though we do not have countless choices and sections dedicated to organics or any healthier foods in our grocery stores, I normally recall not seeing people poking eyes into the ingredient tables on the products. Instead, I saw people reaching and grasping products by their brand names or for their package labeling, which you suggest to avoid. For an example, a tea in Japan called, “Healthiya,” which is marketed and proven for their role in making body harder to accumulate fat. I believe most Japanese people go by the exterior labeling rather than the nutritional labels. Keeping that in mind, Japan is considered to be a healthy populated country with low rates of obesity and diabetes. Therefore, I had to argue that it’s not always beneficial to look only at ingredients. Going by the package label which ideally should present the most important information for the consumer can sometimes be easier and favorable rather than complicating things by looking into the long list of ingredients on the nutrition label. Additionally, I personally feel that people in the United States are actually too obsessed about checking the labels or making the right choices by the label. Food labels misleads us because we allow them to−marketing knows that we depend on the labels to make our choices. If people become a little more insensible and reliant on the labels and concentrate more on eating more raw foods, consumers will be stress-free plus save money for not spending so much on those “manufactured healthy foods”.

  14. Tora Cullip says:

    I have to admit I’ve been swallowing my words since moving (back) to the UK. One particular supermarket, ASDA, which is kind of the “cheap and (not always) cheerful” supermarket here, makes it incredibly difficult – almost impossible – for people to make healthier choices. Walking around there the other day to buy a drying rack, I felt quite depressed as the food options are so incredibly limited. And I know that this is where the “average” person in England shops. I took a photo of the “healthier biscuits” aisle – it had WeightWatchers biscuits, Tracker bars (cereal bars with chocolate coating), homebrand yoghurt slices and Bevita breakfast biscuits (why eat breakfast when you can eat a biscuit?). It feels like as far as we move forward in helping people make healthier choices, the faster the mass market sends people backwards again with this sort of messaging.

  15. Alexandra says:

    I always read food labels carefully, I watch for sodium, but thanks to you Darya, I am now aware of all the sugar. I had no idea, sometime ago I placed a sign on my fridge that says anything with 15 grams of sugar or more is dessert. I used to eat Stonyfields’s yogurt all the time, because of their natural looking aka “green label”. I will not go near the stuff now. Just plain for me.

  16. Pat says:

    I’m not sure but wasn’t it mandatory about a couple of decades ago that food manufacturers were required to put the words “imitation” or “artificial” on the front of packages?

  17. Wendy says:

    thanks Darya
    great article, and I loved your book btw.
    I have become, to most of my friends, a complete and total food bore.
    I only shop the perimeter of my grocery store other than forays into the aisles for RealSalt and unrefined olive and coconut oils…this makes everything wonderfully simple.
    If I couldn’t reproduce a product in my own kitchen, w/ the ingredients on a label….I don’t eat it.

  18. Elle says:

    I always read the ingredients list. It started when my little one, now 9 years old, was diagnosed with food allergies as a baby and expanded through the years and knowledge gained about the different ingredients.
    Now I never buy food that contains sulfite or carrageenan or artificial food colorings, to name a few on my avoidance list.

    It’s difficult with kids since they want all the crap their friends are eating so I need to find a middle way so they don’t binge on candy & snacks at friends houses (happened a couple of times when my eldest was really young – so I learned my lesson).

    For instance, I never buy morning cereals for the kids – but I make for them homemade granola from scratch or buy from time to time honey or brown sugar sweetened puffed whole wheat (the ingredients list has 3 ingredients: whole wheat, honey or brown sugar depends on the brand I find that week and salt).

    I have also taught myself to read ingredients lists in languages I don’t speak so I can avoid buying foods that contain what my little one is allergic too when traveling abroad (:

  19. Kate says:

    Kari in 2012 said: “This is not to say that I always eat healthy things. I just want to know about it when I’m not.”

    I think that sums it up perfectly!

  20. Krish says:

    I’m not really into reading the ingredients when I grab packaged foods before, but now I really take time to read because I am more conscious of what I eat.

    I know it will take me more time to finish my grocery shopping but at least I am doing my part to educate myself because it is a bit scary to take something that can cause harm to my body later on.

  21. gigi says:

    I would agree that the point to food labeling is to sell food not to inform us as to the nutritional value. Since gigantic multinational food companies make the rules, it’s impossible to know what is actually healthy. Now, everyone is in the vegan, gluten-free, organic, non-gmo game. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a food product is healthy. When we see these buzz words, we automatically assume the product is good for us. I primarily stay away from packaged foods not necessarily for health reasons but because it tends to taste like crap. When I do choose packaged food, rather than pay attention to the promotional graphics, I turn the box over and look at the nutritional contents. I don’t get too bogged down with synthetic food sources or preservatives – it is, afterall, packaged food.

  22. Henry Z says:

    What are some of these bad ingredients companies are replacing High Fructose Corn Syrup with?

    • gabikali says:

      You might see them use multiple sugars such as ‘corn syrup’ and ‘fructose’ instead of ‘high fructose corn syrup’. ‘Natural’ brands may also use something like agave or brown rice syrup, some companies just replace with sucrose which can also just be called ‘sugar’. You might also see ‘natural fruit sugar’ or something like that which just means fructose. You will find tons of juice in the aisles that proclaims ‘no added sugar!’ on the front but the first ingredients are concentrated grape and/or apple juice. They extract the juice from fruit then boil it down until it is basically syrup and use it as sweetener… but they can still label it as ‘fruit juice’. The same trick is frequently used in jams, fruit spreads and yogurt. Or you may see ‘paleo’ items and natural food bars like lara brand using whole dates as a sweetener. Dates just happen to be almost all sugar.

      The idea that ‘real’ sugar from cane or beets or any other source is somehow healthier than high fructose corn syrup is not accurate (at least there is no credible research indicating that). Sugar isn’t really ‘bad’, but there isn’t a type of sugar that is ‘good’ either. Limiting the total amount of added sugars is the best way to go, whether HFCS, sugar, maple syrup, honey, agave, etc.

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