Photo by Alex Baden-Mayer
How often do you read the labels on the back of the package when you shop?
If I asked myself this question three years ago, I would have said “I read labels very rarely, as I only focus on the food that I want to buy and the packaging while not paying attention to other ingredients.” Sounds familiar? Three years ago, I started to pay more attention to reading food labels, primarily because I was influenced by my husband, who has been cautious about food ingredients and has been a “picky” consumer all the time (well, in a good way, of course). Interestingly, the more I look into it, the more fascinated I become, and the more I feel it is necessary for me to learn what really goes into my body that will improve or do harm to my health. That’s why I was drawn to the webinar hosted by National Association of Nutrition Professionals on How to Read Labels and Understand What’s Really in Your Food. The interviewee was Mira Dessy, certified nutrition educator and author of The Pantry Principle. And I would like to share what I have learned with you here:
How we shop and the need for more education
The problems lie in these three major areas: we as consumers do not normally pay attention to the food labels because we do not receive enough education on food ingredients. Therefore, we do not know much about the ingredients on the labels even though they are clearly written out by the manufacturers. Next, most of us may truly believe what we see on the labels, which, as I found out from the webinar, can be wrong. Third, most of us may not know that reading labels is an art form as some manufacturers are playing games with us consumers (isn’t this interesting?).
Dangerous ingredients we should avoid (some examples)
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), a common sweetener, can deplete zinc from the body. What’s found in HFCS is mercury, which may be directly related to behavioral disorders and learning difference
- Sodium benzoate , a type of preservatives, can deplete Mitochondrial DNA and can cause oxidative stress
- Olestra inhibits absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K
- Artificial flavors made from chemicals may cause allergic reactions, nervous system depression, chest pain, headache and fatigue
- Food coloring Red No. 40, Blue No. 2 and other artificial colors made from petrochemicals may cause hyperactivity and inattentive behaviors
- Sucralose, an artificial sweetener, may damage kidneys and livers, cause dizziness and rashes and alter gut flora
- Barley malt extract, possible MSG, may affect brain chemistry and fertility, cause headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat and insomnia. It is possible that the packaging claims there is no MSG, while having barley malt extract, which can serve as a form of MSG. This cycle back to the second problem I mentioned earlier: sometimes, it can be wrong to truly believe what manufacturers tell us.
All you need to know about GRAS
GRAS stands for “Generally Recognized As Safe”. According to American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), if a substance added to food is considered safe by qualified experts, it does not go through premarket review or receive approval by FDA. Yet, surprisingly, there are substances known to be bad for us but belonging to “GRAS” label:
- Antibiotics: they are used in animals to help them grow fat fast and to control animal illness. Example ingredients include amprol (thiamin inhibitor that kills parasites which are thiamin dependent), bacitracin (to prevent enteritis), terramycin (a broad spectrum anti-infective), omnimycin (for poultry respiratory infections), duramycin (for stress conditions). So, we should always look for organic foods, especially for meat and dairy.
- Carcinogens: example ingredients include: nitrosamine (found in hot dogs, bacon, lunch-meat, doughnuts, French fries), polysorbate 80 (found in dairy products, gum, shortening and condiments), benzidene (a coloring agent found in Food Coloring Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 dyes)
- Hormones: example ingredients we should watch out for include rBGH/rBST, estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, zeranol, trenbolone and melengestrol. One surprising finding is that nowadays hormones are even used in raising fish. According to Iranian Journal of Fisheries Sciences, oral recombinant bovine somatotropin (a type of hormones) improves growth performance in rainbow trout.
- Metals: example ingredients are arsenic (used to kill certain bacteria in chicken feet and make the meat look pink to appeal to the buyers and which increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues), cadmium, lead, methylmercury, inorganic tin.
It is what you cannot see that reveals the truth
- The science behind labeling – Do you know that if manufacturers do not have .5 gram per serving of transfat in their products, they do not have to declare the presence of transfat? So, if you have more than one serving of this particular food, the amount of transfat will be added u, so that it can become significant over the course of the day. Hm..something to think about?
- Incorrect nutrition labels – Have you ever wondered why the food is sweet while the packaging claims that it is sugar-free? That’s because manufacturers have added taste-altering chemicals to modify salty and sweet tastes, so that they can declare that the food contains less sugar or salt.
- Manufacturers misdirecting with labeling on the front of the package – While shopping at Trader Joe’s, have you seen a front package that says “chips made of organic blue corns”? But when you flip over and see the ingredients at the back of the package, it may also contain genetically modified foods or unhealthy additives. That does not mean manufactures are lying. But pay attention to the possibility that they only display part of the truth in big letters at an eye-catching spot on the front package, so that you forget to look at the back of the packaging.
- Catch-all terminologies – What does “natural” really mean? Manufacturers may take conventional products – that are not necessarily the healthiest choice and don’t have specifically-unlicensed used products – and mark them as “natural” and price it the same as organic products. Think about this: just because they did not use antibiotics or hormones doesn’t mean their ingredients are all natural. But they use that to misdirect consumers.
- How about the word “low”, “reduced” or “free”? – This can mean there are chemical additives because they have to do something to replace the sweetness to meet the human satisfaction of the food. Even the labels says one product has low/reduced amount in one ingredient. It must have the least possible amount of whatever nutrient that the label is referring to. For example, a fat-free food would have to have less than .5 grams of fat per serving.
- Watching out for hidden ingredients – The word “proprietary” is something that a manufacturer always takes pride in, as it shows the product’s uniqueness. As long as the ingredients do not fall under that “allergy labeling” and manufacturers can claim that it is the trade secret.
- Packaging can be an issue, too – Whatever wraps the food can also go into the food. For example, waxy papers at the bottom of meat trays – which are used to prevent bacteria growth – can cause some form of allergy. What’s more, if the ingredients is less than 2%, manufactures do not have to tell you that, either.
To sum up, what’s inside what you eat can be important as what you eat. What I liked about this webinar is that it increases my awareness that we should choose our foods more carefully and mindfully. As I firmly believe what we eat can influence our skin conditions (in the future, I will share with you on how our skin reflects our internal health), we should definitely pay attention to whatever we consume, if we aim to have healthy skin!
About the webinar
According to National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), its webinar series, The Scoop, is held on the second Thursday of every month at 11am PST. Even though I am not a member yet, I signed up for their newsletter called Nourishing Bytes, where I get updates on different health events and seminars. If interested, you are welcome to visit their site. Here is the site: http://nanp.org/the-scoop-webinar for future webinars. Hope this is helpful for you ; )