Is That Food Healthy? Deciphering Food Labels

There are several aspects to every food label that need to be examined when you’re determining whether the product you are purchasing is a healthy choice. The front label, or what you see first, is the manufacturer’s marketing hype. You can ignore that part of the label completely. For example, the term “all natural” is meaningless. There are no regulations governing use of the term. The FDA apparently doesn’t care if “blueberry” cereals contain absolutely no blueberries. The fruit looking “crunchlets” are actually lumps of sugar dyed blue. There are “juices” marketed for young children that are nothing more than sugar water. Any company can put “free range” on the label of any package containing eggs. There is, however, a rule for the term “free range” when used on a package of chicken. It means our feathered friends have been allowed a minimum of five minutes per day out in the open.

The nutritional portion of the label gives us a bit more real information such as the number of calories, grams of fat and sugar per serving. Be aware that companies love to help you avoid the caloric sticker shock by changing “serving size” to smaller portions. If they can make it small enough so that trans-fat or other evil substance take up.5 grams or less, they can actually label the food as “trans-fat free” even when it isn’t. Conversely, when they want you to consume a huge drink product in one sitting, they claim there’s only one serving in the container. You tell me how an eight ounce, 12 ounce, and 22 ounce container of the same brand of soft drink are all single servings. When you buy a two liter bottle, the single serving size drops back down to eight ounces. Amazing.

A third part of a food label lists ingredients in order of the predominance according to weight. Let’s examine a “whole wheat” saltine cracker manufactured by one of the big companies. Our first reaction when we look at the front of the box is, “Wow, this has to be healthier than a regular saltine because it’s made from whole grain wheat.” When we turn the box over and examine the nutritional information, it still looks okay because the recommended serving size of five crackers contains only 60 calories. Further down we discover that 25 percent of the calories come from fat which we’re not too crazy about. At least it isn’t saturated or the evil trans-fat. We do find 230mg of salt. But, then again, this is a saltine. What did we expect? If we stop here, we’re not too discouraged with anything but the salt content which, by the way, is significantly more than that found in a regular saltine. Now, let’s look at the list of ingredients. First up is wheat flour. Don’t be fooled. That does not mean whole wheat flour. It means flour derived from wheat rather than rice, corn, or any other grain. That’s right. It’s plain old white flour. The actual whole wheat flour is third on the list of ingredients, which means it really doesn’t constitute a significant portion of the cracker. That’s because, let’s face it, no one would buy a cracker that is made from a large amount of whole wheat flour. It wouldn’t taste good to those of us who have been brought up eating refined products. But, because this manufacturer knows we all want to become healthier, they’ve come up with this “whole wheat” cracker that is, in reality, the original version with more salt. There’s not even enough whole wheat flour in it to make it look like a “whole wheat cracker” so they’ve added caramel color to complete the costume.

We all know that sugar isn’t good for you. So, how does a manufacturer market a product that is high in sugar? If they list it first on the ingredient label, it makes it so obvious that this “food” isn’t healthy. They can get away with that on items you find in the candy aisle because you expect to find lots of sugar there. But how do they fool you into buying a blueberry muffin mix that’s high in sugar? They use sweeteners that originate from about three different sources so they can all be listed separately and, subsequently, further down on the list. Now they’re selling you on a product that’s “full of anti-oxidant rich fruit” instead of one that’s really highly sweetened.

Sensitive to MSG? Me too. I hate the stuff. The manufacturers know that it’s gotten a lot of well-deserved bad press. So, they include it under a host of different names. As a matter of fact, there are so many substances that contain it, all the space in this article would be consumed if I listed every one of them. Gelatin calcium caseinate, textured protein, hydrolyzed plant protein, yeast extract, autolyzed plant protein, vegetable protein extract, maltodextrin, and barley malt are but a few. Very scary.

The moral of the story is that the FDA has sold out to all the food lobbyists and we don’t have any recourse but to do the homework ourselves. We’re being fed slow poison and, to make things worse, we’re actually paying for it willingly. And the high cost doesn’t end at the supermarket. Larger medical bills, compromised productivity, and poor mental health are also serious consequences of this problem. The best thing you can do for you and your family is to buy single ingredient items and do most of your shopping in the produce section. Make the food manufacturers go out and find some honest work.