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6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and NOT Let Them Fool You!)

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6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and NOT Let Them Fool You!)

All Natural! Sugar Free! Gluten Free! Paleo! Vegan! Dairy Free! Low Fat! When we shop, we are overwhelmed by a plethora of promises that what we are about to put in our cart is “healthy”. But what we really need in order to make healthy choices at the grocery store, is effective strategies to read food labels so that we can become immune to the “marketing storm”.

As a matter of fact, none of these definitions mentioned above fully encompass the only attributes that really matter: natural, whole, real.

Sometimes, as a result of the misleading claims mentioned above, we end up buying ‘gluten-free’ scones loaded with trans fats, ‘vegan’ muffins that are full of sugar and ‘sugar-free’ cookies dyed with artificial colorings and sweetened with aspartame.

The food industry does an amazing job in promoting what isn’t and in minimizing what shouldn’t be in there. But the one thing we can do in order to protect ourselves is to start flipping the package and master our art of reading food labels.

I hear your concerns. Going to the grocery store and feeling like we need to be Sherlock Holmes is not the most enjoyable activity. BUT, being aware and in control of the food we put in our house will protect ourselves and our families from fake food and make us feel empowered to and live a healthier, more natural life!

In this GUIDE, I will share you the 6 most important strategies to read food labels that I learned throughout the years. And if you get overwhelmed because it’s too much to remember al once, start by implementing one tip at the time, and save this article in your favorite Pinterest board so that you can go back to it when you are ready try another “food label reading strategy” to your grocery shopping game 😉

6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and Don't Let Them Fool You!) 1
6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and Don't Let Them Fool You!) 1

How to Read Food Labels:

1. Beware of Food Claims. Flip the Package!

The first and most important thing to be aware of is that the front of the package is basically a mini commercial that sits on the shelf. It’s designed to catch your attention and sometimes filled with misleading words to convince people to buy.

Flip the package and go straight to the list of ingredients. Nutrition facts, calories, serving size and daily values… aren’t as important as knowing what’s actually inside the package!

In fact, even when the nutrition facts look apparently healthy or low in calories, the ingredient list can include a bunch of chemicals and substances we can’t even pronounce.

And this is true especially for people with food allergies or intolerances.Sadly, it’s not uncommon to find products labelled as “gluten free” that then mention rye and barley in the ingredient list. So always make sure that’s the first thing you read!!

2. Less Is Best! Make Sure the Ingredients Aren't Too Many!

To save you time AND solve 90% of your concerns, here’s my first piece of advice: Less is best! Before you even start reading, simply glimpse at the number of ingredients. If they are more than 15, chances are that only half of them are ‘natural, ‘simple’ and ‘real’. After a 1 second investigation, you are ready to make your choice and put the product back on the shelf. Easy right?

3. Stay Away From Fake Food: Artificial AND "Natural" Ingredients

When a food label passes the first test and you decide it’s worth a read, there are quite a few substances you should look out for. As I invite you to do your own research (nothing is more stirring than the discoveries you make on your own), I am going to share here some of the ingredients I always look out for, and honestly, staying away from flavorings and colorings is one of the the strategies to read food labels that I use the most.

Artificial Colorings: Yellow #2, Red #5 or Blue Lake #40 are some the names. Their actual sources are coal tar and petrochemicals. The artificial colors that go into our plates are dangerous to our health. Given that their only purpose is cosmetic, removing them from our diet is a no-brainer.

Artificial AND Natural Flavors: While it’s pretty intuitive that the first ones are – you guessed it – ‘artificial’, not as spontaneous it is to put the ‘natural’ ones under test. We all know for example that MSG, the monosodium glutamate often found in Asian style seasonings and sauces, it’s a dangerous neurotoxin able to shrivel and kill brain cells in the hypothalamus. But it’s easy to assume that, because they don’t contain petroleum and other chemicals, Natural Flavors are much better. In fact, because food companies are not required to specify what these are, we can expect anything! Even beaver’s butt!

6 Strategies to Read Food Labels

According to the regulations of the FDA, natural flavors can include any “flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products”. Because nature’s kingdom is wide, the sky is the limit when we talk about ‘natural flavors’. The food industry can use virtually anything found in nature (including genetically engineered organisms – GMO) in their products. We go so far as to find beaver’s butt (castoreum) in our ‘naturally flavored’ food! Yes, you read that right.

Castoreum is an odoriferous secretion found in two sacs between the anus and the external genitals of beavers. As the food industry discovered it tastes kind of fruity, they started using it to replace real (and more expansive) vanilla, strawberries and raspberries in ice creams, baked goods etc. This is just one of the wonders hidden behind the label ‘natural flavor’. So stay away from them: their only purpose is to trigger our sense of taste and get us addicted to processed food.

Cellulose: This substance, commonly used as a thickener in both non-organic and organic products, consists of minuscule pieces of wood pulp or other plant fibers. It’s a cheap replacement for more expansive ingredients like oil or flour and it’s often used in shredded and grated cheeses, spices and powdered drink mixes. If you don’t feel like eating trees, skip it.

Artificial Sweeteners: Worse than sugar there’s only… ‘artificial’ sugar! Aspartame, Glutamate, Saccharin Sucralose (Splenda), Sorbitol, Acesulfame-K, Maltodextrin… the lest is long. Just stay away from them.

Strategies to Read Labels

Unfortunately, there are many more nasty substances to watch out for that I didn’t mention in this list, but in general, one of the best strategies to read food labels is to avoid anything that has ingredients you can’t picture or recognize.

4. Do You Know What's Really In Your Preservatives?

We read ‘preservative’ and it doesn’t sound that harmful. We read silicon, formaldehyde, petroleum and plastic and our perception changes a bit. Real food is fresh. Naturally it’s not supposed to last longer than a few days.

When buying something, ask yourself how long it would last if you prepared it at home. Most likely it’s only a few days. So, that bread with a 30 day shelf life bread you are about to buy probably received some artificial help. Of course, it would be very hard in today’s world to boycott all foods containing preservatives, but we can at least try to avoid the most harmful ones.

Dimethylpolysiloxane: Commonly used as a filler fluid in breast implants, aquarium sealants and adhesives, dimethylpolysiloxane contains several different chemicals including formaldehyde, one of the most toxic substances on earth! Could you imagine that the same ingredient is used a food additive, anti-foaming and anti-caking agent in fountain drinks and French fries?

Although being linked to allergies, brain damage, cancer, and auto-immune disorders, fast foods use it in soups and syrups, in chewing gums and Mc Donalds Chicken Nuggets! Make yourself a favor: look out for it.

Azodicarbonamide: This chemical commonly used in the production of foamed plastics like yoga mats, shoe soles and floor mats, turned out to be a great texture enhancer, able to make packaged bread look freshly baked. No wonder food companies use it as a dough conditioner in many of their baked goods. Starbucks croissants and Subway 9 Grain Bread loaves are some of the many products featuring this tasty chemical. Read the labels and say no to plastic bread.

^ Strategies to Read Food Labels

Citric Acid: Its name sounds natural and makes us think of citrus fruits, like oranges and lemons. But this common ingredient used to extend the shelf life of countless processed foods is not what we think it is. Actually squeezing limes and lemons would be too expensive for the food industry, which found a great alternative to its production by fermenting cane sugar or molasses with the fungus Aspergillus niger.

Even though it tastes similar to lemon juice, citric acid looks like a white powder that has nothing to do with fruit. Since sugar and molasses come from mostly genetically modified corn and sugar beets, citric acid as a result is a genetically engineered products as well. It is known to irritate the digestive system, causing heartburn and damage to the mucous membrane of the stomach.

6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and Don't Let Them Fool You!) 1

5. Stay Away From Nasty Oils

Of all the strategies to read food labels, the one I abide by 99% of the time is by far this one! Vegetable oils, such as soybean, cottonseed, corn, canola and safflower, can’t be extracted just by pressing (like extra virgin Olive Oi, Avocado or Coconut Oil), they must be chemically extracted from the plants with a solvent named hexane and then deodorized and altered.

Because they are highly processed, these oils are highly inflammatory for our body and can contribute to many degenerative diseases.

As this wasn’t enough, these oils derive from some of the most genetically modified crops and contain a good amount of saturated fat, which stimulates the liver to produce more cholesterol..

In particular, the oil I always look out for is ‘canola’. When our goal is to only eat ‘real’, ‘natural’ food, we can’t let an ingredient engineered in a lab sneak into our plates.

Can.o.l.a in fact is a made-up word that stands for “Canadian Oil Low Acid”. In the 80‘s, after discovering that rapeseed oil contains high amounts of erucic acid, which is poisonous to the body and associated with heart damage, they thought about genetically modifying the plant to lower its toxicity

Strategies to Read Labels

The hybrid version of rapeseed they got to, canola, is first treated with high levels of pesticides, then heated and processed with a petroleum solvent to extract the oil, lastly processed with acid to remove the solids that occur during the first processing. At this point, the newly created canola oil must be treated with more chemicals to improve color and separate the different parts of the oil. But it doesn’t end here: since the chemical process has created a harsh smell, now the oil must be chemically deodorized to be palatable.

Cold pressing olives and coconuts sounds so much more natural, doesn’t it?! Watch out when eating out: because Canola Oil is a cheap product to manufacture, it’s used in many packaged foods, even when labeled as healthy! And when you are out at a restaurant… always ask what oil they use and either request Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Coconut Oil…. or no oil at all!

6. Was It Made in a Lab or Grown on a Tree?

GMOs are any living organism that has had its genetic material modified through human scientific interference. In order to increase the resistance to disease and herbicides of these organisms, foreign genes were forced into their DNA, such as bacteria and viruses that have never been in the human food supply.

Genetically Modified Organisms have been linked to several types of potential health effects: from the production of new allergens, to increased toxicity and antibiotic resistance. I am nobody to declare whether GMOs are a good thing or a bad thing, but I’ll share with you what I do: to be on the safer side I try my best to remove the most common genetically modified foods from my shopping list.

On top the list, as the most heavily genetically modified foods in the world, are Canola, Cottonseed, Corn, Soy and Alfalfa.

Like always, I invite you to do your own research, but these are some other foods that can potentially be concerning: yellow squash and zucchini, as they were genetically modified with the insertion of a toxic protein that makes them insect resistant.

Tomatoes have been genetically engineered as well for longer shelf life, preventing them from easily rotting and degrading.

Strategies to Read Food labels

Hawaiian and Chinese papayas were modified to be naturally resistant to Papaya Ringspot virus and to delay the maturity of the fruit, in order to give suppliers more time to ship it to supermarkets.

Rice, unfortunately, has been genetically modified as well in order to contain a higher amount of vitamin A. And another starch commonly used in paleo baking has been modified to be virus and pesticide resistant: Cassava and the starch derived from it,Tapioca. So be careful, when you read a food label: if it says ”modified tapioca starch”, !

Lastly, one of the most pervasive GM products on the market is Sugar Beet, that makes up half of the U.S. sugar production, and 95% of the country’s sugar beet market. So, in addiction to the many reasons why we must eliminate sugar from our diet, keep in mind: it’s also one of the most genetically modified foods!

6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and Don't Let Them Fool You!) 1

Which one of these strategies to read food labels do you commit to implementing today? Let me know in a comment below, and if you have other tips that I forgot to mention feel free to share!

As always, make sure you share this article with your loved ones on Facebook and Pinterest and I subscribe to my weekly newsletter so that you can get in touch with me directly!!

Love,   Ambra

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6 Smart Strategies to Read Food Labels (and NOT Let Them Fool You!)

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Ambra Torelli
Born and raised in Italy, Ambra visited over 20 countries and now she divides her time in between Italy and the US, where her husband is from and where she moved in 2011 work as university professor of Italian Literature. She writes about food, travel and things that inspire her! more about ambra

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