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Reading Ingredients on Food Labels

By Fredrica Syren

After watching the movie Forks over Knives, I started wondering about what is in the food we eat. I already know that “sugar free” and “fat free” do not mean healthy and light, plus diet products are something in my past. But then I stumbled upon a blog called “100 Days of Real Food,” where a family has pledged not to eat processed foods for 100 days. They try to live by the five ingredients rule, which means buying only foods containing five or fewer ingredients. At first I thought this sounded crazy because I would have to read every single label on every single thing I want to buy, and that seemed like a daunting, time-consuming task. But it didn’t take long to identify which brands fill the bill of containing only ingredients I know, with no additives (especially extra sugar or sweetener), preservatives, or food coloring, and often with less than five ingredients. Another good rule is if you cannot pronounce an ingredient, you probably don’t want to eat it.

As a vegetarian I have gotten used to look for “hidden” animal products, but looking for bad ingredients is new to me. The first thing I did was to go over the foods I had lying around in freezer, fridge and pantry. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the foods I have at home do not contain that many ingredients and, when they do, I can identify most of them. However, when it came to my freezer, it was another story. The majority of the things I keep there are for when I’m in a rush and need food quickly. I know there is a “convenience theory” that says this is how many Americans get sick and become overweight. So I’m happy to announce that those foods are now gone.

Most people (including myself for a while) assume that ingredients lists on food products are designed to inform consumers about what’s contained in the product. The reality is that food manufacturers use the ingredients lists to deceive consumers and trick them into thinking products are healthier (or of better quality) than they really are.  It’s called marketing!

One of the most common tricks is to distribute sugars among many ingredients so that sugars don’t appear in the top three. For example, a manufacturer may use a combination of sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugar ingredients to make sure none of them are present in large enough quantities to attain a top position on the ingredients list.

Companies are using the ingredients list to “hide” harmful additives also. For example, sodium nitrite is common in many processed food and sounds innocent, but it is well documented as causing brain tumors, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer and many other cancers.

Carmine sounds like an innocent food coloring, but it’s actually made from the smashed bodies of red cochineal beetles. Of course, nobody would eat strawberry yogurt if the ingredients listed “insect-based red food coloring” on the label; instead, they just call it “carmine.”

Similarly, yeast extract sounds like a perfectly safe food ingredient, too, but it’s actually a trick used to hide monosodium glutamate (MSG, a chemical taste enhancer used to excite the flavors of overly-processed foods) without having to list MSG on the label.

Good things to be aware of:

· The ingredients are listed in the order of quantity, so the first one is what the product contains most. For example, if you are getting fruit juice but the first ingredients are water and sugar, not fruit, you might want to look for another.

· If the ingredients list contains long, chemical-sounding words that you can’t pronounce, avoid that item. It likely does contain various toxic chemicals. Why would you want to eat them? Stick with ingredients you recognize.

· Don’t be fooled by fancy-sounding herbs or other ingredients that appear very far down the list. A food manufacturer that includes “fruits” toward the end of the listprobably is just using it as a marketing gimmick on the label, when in reality there may be almost no fruit at all in the product.

· Remember that ingredients lists don’t have to list chemical contaminants. Foods can be contaminated with pesticides, solvents, acrylamides, PFOA, perchlorate (rocket fuel) and other toxic chemicals without needing to list them at all. The best way to minimize your ingestion of toxic chemicals is to buy organic, or go with fresh, minimally processed foods.

· Look for words like “sprouted” or “raw” to indicate higher-quality natural foods. Sprouted grains and seeds are far healthier than non-sprouted. Raw ingredients are generally healthier than processed or cooked . Whole grains are healthier than “enriched” grains.

· Watch out for deceptively small serving sizes. Food manufacturers use this trick to reduce the number of calories, grams of sugar or grams of fat believed to be in the foodby consumers. Many serving sizes are arbitrary and have no basis in reality.

· If the list of ingredients is long, there probably are a lot of chemicals additives and preservatives in it.

Watch out for statements like these on packages:

• NATURAL FRUIT FLAVORS, with Real Fruit Juice
• 100% NATURAL

About Green Mom

Fredrica Syren, the author and founder of Green-Mom.com, was born in Sweden. Her mother was a classically trained chef who introduced her to many eclectic flavors and skills at a young age. Her mom’s passion for the outdoors and gardening planted the seed for her own love of nature and healthy eating. She received a degree in journalism and has worked as a print, Internet and broadcasting journalist for many years with big businesses within Europe and the United States. After her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she with pre-cancer, Fredrica changed her career to become a full time yoga teacher and activist. A longtime world traveler, foodie and career woman, she was exposed to many facets of life, but nothing inspired her more than becoming a mom. After her first-born, Fredrica began a food blog focusing on local, seasonal, organic & vegetarian dishes. Years of food blogging developed into the cookbook Yummy in My Tummy, Healthy Cooking for the Whole Family. Upon the arrival of her second child, Fredrica founded Green-Mom.com. Her vision was to establish a site providing insight about gardening, home and personal care, baby & child, and of course food & nutrition. Green-Mom.com hosts many talented writers shedding light on ways to incorporate eco-friendly and nutritious practices for busy families. She is an advocate for organic, local and sustainable businesses. Fredrica hopes to inspire social change through her lifestyle, passion and business. Fredrica lives with her husband James Harker-Syren and their three children in San Diego, CA.

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