An important stepping-stone on the path to healthy eating is reading food labels.  Do not be fooled by various labels or packaging that read as all natural or organic.  Many packaged foods on the market are chock-full of processed sugars, trans fats, and other ingredients that are harmful to your health.  You simply cannot trust the processed or packaged foods that you purchase, short of independent laboratory analysis.  This isn’t very practical, of course.  Do your homework and make the best choice you can with the information you have.  Reading and understanding ingredients that are listed on food labels will guide you to better food choices and ultimately living a healthier lifestyle. 

When it comes to processed foods, if it says natural, ignore the claim.  It means nothing.  This may or may not surprise you, the FDA does not check to see if the Nutrition Facts panel is accurate, only if it is present!  The FDA has no guidelines for use of the term “natural” and only lightly enforces the term “all-natural,” according to Vox. Meanwhile, the USDA defines “natural” as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color” that “is only minimally processed,” meaning it’s “processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.” That means animals raised with hormones and antibiotics can still fall under the “natural” category, as can Cheetos, lemon-flavored Oreos, and Skippy peanut butter.*

Many food items are currently exempt from being labeled; this includes GMO (genetically modified organisms) ingredients, irradiated ingredients, pink slime and ingredients from cloned animals.  Be especially on the lookout for corn and soybean ingredients/derivatives including lecithin.  Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States have been genetically modified.   

One way that you can be sure that a product is free of these ingredients is for the product to state it is non-GMO.  For more GMO information, you can download a Non-GMO Shopping Guide from the Institute for Responsible Technology.  Labels that state “all organic” have little meaning without the official USDA Organic seal, ensuring the product is at least 95% organic. Processed foods can be labeled organic if only 80% of the ingredients are organic.  The official seal is your best assurance of quality, however keep in mind that it has been compromised over the past several years.  And organic junk food is still junk food.

Eating healthy really comes down to a change in your mindset – choosing to eat “real” food.  The bottom line is the least processed, the more natural a food is, the better it is for you!   Do your best to purchase fresh veggies, fruits and meats and prepare meals from scratch. Purchase  from local farms and sources that do NOT use GMO seeds (preferably heirloom seeds) and pesticides.  Consume grass-fed meats and raw dairy products that are free from hormones and antibiotics.  Eat certified organic foods as much as you can afford to and from grocery stores and co-ops that you trust.

Be diligent to read EVERY label listed on EVERY food before you make a purchase!   Choose glass containers whenever possible over cans or plastic.  

Ingredients and Additives to Avoid and Why

  • Corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and corn sugar – It is critical to cut out all corn syrup from your food supply.  High fructose corn syrup is one of the worst things you can put into your body. The majority of it is made from genetically modified food and contains mercury. It has been linked to diabetes, an increase in triglyceride levels and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
  • Trans Fats – Avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil.  Margarine, shortening and fried foods contain trans fats.  Beware of labels that read, “No Trans Fats.” Please be aware that “0% trans fat” does NOT mean “no trans fat.”  A food product can still contain up to 500 mg of trans fat in its “standard serving” and yet claim zero percent (0 %) trans fats.  Please note that most of the portions are ridiculously small and it’s more common that no one ever eats just one serving!  This is what I call “legal deception”.
  • MSG – flavor enhancer and a potent neurotoxin that can cause anything from migraines to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.  It is also hidden in other ingredients such as autolyzed yeast, glutamate, textured protein, gelatin, natural flavors, barley malt and soy sauce, just to name a few.
  • Nitrates and nitrites – carcinogenic preservatives used to cure meats such as ham, bacon, hot dogs, sausages, and cold cuts.  It is possible to purchase these foods without them.
  • BHA and BHT—preservatives that are added to processed foods and have been linked to cancer.
  • Potassium Bromate – an endocrine disruptor that is added to many white flours and baked goods that can cause damage to your thyroid and psychiatric and cardiac problems.  Most countries except in the U.S. and Japan have banned it.
  • Common food dyes – Most FD&C dyes are derived from coal tar, which is a human carcinogen, including Citrus Red No. 2, which is used to dye your oranges orange, unless you purchase organic oranges.  According to Dr. Mercola, “Food dyes are one of the most widely used and dangerous additives. While the European Union has recently placed regulations on labeling food dyes to inform consumers of the health risks, the United States has no such requirement.”
  • Pink Slime – A beef-based food additive that the meat industry calls “lean, finely textured beef” and a former government scientist coined as “pink slime.” It is made from fatty trimmings that are sprayed with ammonium hydroxide to remove pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli, as they are more susceptible to contamination than other cuts of beef.

Did You Know?

U.S. health officials consider ammonia (ammonium hydroxide, ammonium phosphate and ammonium chloride) to be “safe” in “small amounts” and was approved nearly 40 years ago.  It is used in making many processed foods including soft drinks, soups, canned vegetables, cheese, etc.  Related compounds have a role in baked goods and chocolate products. It is NOT required by U.S. regulators to be included on food labels when it is considered a “processing aid.”

Food For Thought?

Hmm, what else is considered “safe” and what is meant by “small amounts?”

* “‘Natural’ Means Practically Nothing When It Comes to Food”
How processed foods like Cheetos and antibiotic-filled meat can still be labeled “natural” on the supermarket shelf
by Brenna Houck

**Non-GMO Shopping Guide

Labels to look for: