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Food Label Reading 101

We doctors just got back from lunch.  One of the perks of being close to a Whole Foods is swinging by to pick up something delicious off their hot bar.  I always want to try so many different items that my lunch is really hodge podgy, but I love trying the many healthy options!  I stood in the beverage area waiting for Dr. Wibbenmeyer…… He seems to take a lot longer to make his grub decision!  Anyway, this young woman selected a prepackaged smoothie off the shelf and handed it to her mom who was pouring over labels on many of the other cooled beverages.  The mother snatched the smoothie from her daughter’s hand and promptly flipped over the bottle to find “32 grams of sugar!  I mean, 32 grams of sugar?!  That is ridiculous!  No one should drink that.”  The daughter shrugged and walked away, deciding to look at that little nutrition box for herself before giving her mom her next selection attempt.  


Ironically, as physicians in functional medicine, we tell people not to look at that little nutrition box!  I know!  How is that for confusing?  Let me explain why.

Yes, that smoothie that had 32 grams of sugar in the nutrition box….. but I crept over and took at look at the ingredients.   100% of the product was fruit – blended up fruit with no added juice or sugar.  I would actually give that smoothie a green light!  It seemed like the lack of phrases like “low carb,” low sugar,” low fat,” and “gluten free” concerned this consumer…that’s how food companies get the best sales!

Billions of dollars are spent by the food industry every year attempting to market a food product to you.  The fast food industry alone spends around $5 billion annually.  Food manufacturing companies prepare packaging that looks earthy, natural and wholesome.  They put warm, fuzzy words in just the right places in just the right fonts to make you feel that you are definitely making the right choice by selecting their product.  Nevermind that many of the terms they use have no defined requirements by the FDA!

Really, wouldn’t it be nice if we were having a conversation about just eating real food all the time? Nothing needs to be packaged or labeled because you grow it all in your organic garden out back, right?….. Wrong!  Let’s be real here.  Most of us are using some prepared items that make our life a little easier.  So, if you are going to be wandering in the grocery aisles at all, it is definitely in your best interest to be armed with Label Reading 101.

Your first assignment:  Alright, you pick up the jar of tomato sauce.  The label is light brown and has pictures of growing tomatoes.  It says “natural” and “Pappa Z’s Homemade Recipe.”  You are already feeling good, right?  Don’t fall for it.  FLIP THE JAR OVER.  

You turn the jar and see the nutrition box.  IGNORE IT!

Keep looking.  Under the nutrition box is usually found the list of ingredients.  All ingredients are listed in the order of highest quantity.  If an ingredient is listed first, there is the most of that item.  As the list goes on, there is least amount of the last ingredient listed.  

You may have heard people tell you, “If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, then don’t eat it.”  I find that this is not as straightforward of a technique as some would like.  Sometimes those unfamiliar words are preservatives and chemicals, however they are often the biochemical names of vitamins and added nutrients.

Be on the lookout for surprise ingredients or items that seem unnecessary to the product.

Let’s say you pick up 2 similar jars of peanut butter.

Item 1 listed ingredients says: peanuts, oil, sugar, salt.peanut-butter-ingredients-label

Item 2 listed ingredients says: peanuts, salt.

Do we need to add sugar to peanut butter?  Do we need to add extra oil?

The next time you are at the store, do some product comparisons.  See if you can catch unnecessary ingredients like sugar being snuck into your food.  This is a simple way to clean up your diet-just by being a wiser consumer!  Try this with spaghetti sauce, jelly, packaged meats, and breads.

So remember:

Look past labels

Go past the nutrition box

Read the ingredients!

These 3 simple steps put you in the consumer driver seat.  You have officially bypassed the billions of marketing dollars spent on deceiving you!  Now you can make informed decisions about what enters your mouth and body.

Stay tuned for more details on what ingredients to really watch out for and how to spot the most harmful chemical additives put in our food!

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