Reading Labels Like A Hawk


It is human nature to look to simplify as many daily tasks as possible.  Life is complicated enough, right?  And mundane grocery shopping only gets so much time on the to-do list.  Soon enough, we can easily fall into a rut of choosing the same brands with attractive logos and images, not questioning what all that “green” language on the front of the label really means.  Unfortunately, many of the words on the front label don’t mean much, and sometimes they’re really confusing.  You have to turn the package around and read the back of the label to figure out what’s really inside.

With this post, I’d like to share information about some common issues I see with product labels in the stores.  Hopefully, this will clear up any confusion, and help you make informed decisions while shopping for your family.

Natural vs. Certified Organic
Bad news…the FDA doesn’t have a solid definition of what the word “natural” actually means, in terms of a food label.  Until now, the FDA has considered the term “natural” to loosely mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including color additives) has been included in or added to a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.  However, there is essentially no enforcement on what “natural” substances are allowed, or if they even need to be named.  “Natural” does not necessarily equate to “healthy”.  It may include animal products or plant products but, it may not be fully described in the ingredient list.  Basically, “natural” is a term that is only used for marketing, to make you think the product inside is healthy, even if it’s not.

On the other hand, USDA Certified Organic is very clearly defined by the FDA. USDA certified organic foods are grown and processed according to specific federal guidelines including soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. As for organic meat, regulations require that animals are raised to accommodate their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not added antibiotics or hormones.

Even so, Certified Organic only guarantees that 95% of the product adheres to these requirements.  The remaining 5% may only be foods or processed with additives on an approved list.  When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group],” this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in Certified Organic products. 

Vegetarian Fed (Eggs)
Chickens are not meant to be vegetarian, yet the term is so trendy and health-oriented that egg companies are promoting it on the label.  Chickens are meant to scratch around in the dirt for insects and worms, even small lizards and frogs for their protein. In addition, chickens love lettuces and a variety of small seeds, fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that backyard chickens eat no more than a small percentage of grains.  But “vegetarian fed” chickens are fed nothing but grain and soy – cheap GMO materials that fatten the chicken quickly due to estrogenic effects, and leave the eggs with an altered, inflammatory Omega 3:6 ratio.  “Vegetarian fed” is a warning sign that the chickens did not get to spend any time on pasture being happy birds.  Look for “pasture raised” or “free range” eggs, or buy directly from your local farmer or CSA.

You can check with Natures Garden Express or with the USDA to find convenient access to locally grown organic food in your area.

Nitrates & Nitrites
These are preservatives added to processed meat to prevent bacteria growth and to maintain color.  Naturally occurring compounds in the nitrates and nitrites combine with protein “amines” to create nitrosamines, which are known cancer-causing compounds that adversely affect the digestive tract and are linked to many forms of cancer.  Artificially added nitrates and nitrites are commonly found in cured meats (bacon, salami, sausage and hot dogs) and some deli meats.  Note that there are some nutritious foods such as spinach, beets and leafy vegetables that are naturally high in nitrates; however, human studies on nitrate intake from vegetables have found either no association with or a decreased risk of cancer.  

BHA & BHT are chemical preservatives used to preserve fats and oils, which are banned in many other countries but are still allowed in the U.S. food supply. The National Toxicology Program classifies these as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”  In addition the EU classifies BHA as an endocrine disruptor. At higher doses it can lower testosterone and the thyroid hormone thyroxine and adversely affect sperm quality and the sex organs of rats (Jeong 2005). A wide variety of foods contain BHA and/or BHT, including chips and preserved meats.  Strive to avoid preserved meats and substitute raw vegetables for chips.

Part 2:

Propylene glycol

Used as a thickening agent to absorb water.  It aids in the processing of foods improving their texture, flavor, appearance, and shelf life.  You will find it in many packaged foods such as drink mixes, dressings, dried soups, cake mix, soft drinks, popcorn, food coloring, fast foods, bread, and dairy products.  It is linked to central nervous system depression and kidney damage.  By consuming a fresh, healthy, whole foods diet, you can avoid most sources.

Dimethylpolysiloxane or dimethicone

One of several types of silicone oil.  It is present in contact lenses and medical devices and shampoos to make hair shiny.  It is also added to many cooking oils to prevent oil splatter.  As a result, trace quantities can be found in many fast food items in breads, french fries, milkshakes, and smoothies.

Partially hydrogenated & hydrogenated oils
Food manufacturers hydrogenate liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid and shelf stable.  In partial hydrogenation, the resulting fats are semi-solid at room temperature.  In full hydrogenation, the oils become completely solid.  The problem with partially hydrogenated oils is that they contain trans fat, which raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol.  In contrast, fully hydrogenated oils become saturated fats but they contain no trans fat.  The type of saturated fat typically produced is not thought to have significant effect on cardiovascular risk.

Some products to be wary of are cooking oils, commercial peanut butter, Jiffy cornbread mix, and cake mixes.

Artificial colors
Linked with children’s brain activity, cause of hyperactivity and behavior problems in children, attention disorders, and allergic reactions. Internationally, the U.S. is behind other countries on its artificial dye policies.  The UK has imposed a voluntary ban on several dyes because of their potential harm, and the EU places warning labels on products containing dyes.

Find it in bright candy, breakfast cereals, baked goods, sodas, and some meat products (hot dogs, sausages)

Avoiding food dyes is just one of the benefits of choosing high-nutrient whole foods instead.

Potassium bromate
Potassium bromate is used to strengthen bread, muffin and cracker dough and help it rise during baking. It is listed as a known carcinogen by the state of California as it has been found to and can cause tumors, at multiple sites in animals is toxic to the kidneys, and can cause DNA damage. Baking converts most potassium bromate to non-carcinogenic potassium bromide, but research in the UK has shown that bromate residues are still detectable in finished bread-like products.  Both the UK and Canada prohibit the use of potassium bromate in food, and it is not allowed in the EU either. The US, however, still allows it to be added to flour.  Look for potassium bromate in commercially produced bread, crackers, pastries and muffins.

Bad because it is toxic to the thyroid and causes underactivity of thyroid hormone production.

It is a thickener to improve the texture in dairy alternatives like almond milk and soy milk, as well as ice cream, yogurt, and cottage cheese.  Products with carrageenan may be labeled as “natural,” but limited studies show it may promote or cause: inflammation, bloating, IBS, glucose intolerance, colon cancer, and food allergies.  Check labels to avoid this ingredient.

MSG – monosodium glutamate
A flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups, and processed meats.  The FDA recognizes MSG as “safe” but its use remains controversial.  Adverse reactions to foods containing MSG include: headache, flushing, sweating, numbness/burning in areas, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea and weakness.  Symptoms may be mild.  It is best to avoid foods containing MSG to not experience these reactions.

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