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Label Reading 101

Those of you who follow my studies in my newsletter know I have recently completed a fascinating and informative course offered by Cornell on Plant Based Nutrition. For me, one memorable highlight was a presentation by dietitian, nutritionist, and chef Jeff Novick entitled "Should I eat that?"

According to Novick, a recent Cornell poll found that more than 84% of American shoppers are confused or apathetic about their nutrition choices. I know that you, Dear Reader, are among the remaining 16%, but I thought it would be useful to spend some time discussing the roots of this problem, and developing a few rules to help us make our way through the megamart jungle.

With the health of Americans in swift decline, the number 84%, and the words "confused" and "apathetic" are especially troubling. The deceptive labeling of foods is big business. Hungry conglomerates are quick to spend big dollars -- we all know this -- to make their big scores, and they have no shame when it comes to victimizing people for profit. They get away with 'murder' literally, by taking advantage of all the loopholes available to them, written into the "fair labeling" laws by their lobbyists and complicit congressmen. Words like "natural", "organic", "healthy", "low fat", "low carbs", "antioxidant" have become, along with innumerable other acronyms or monikers, completely debased through cynical misuse. Like the bright colors and engaging animals used to trick children to beg for trashy products, these likely but misleading terms are being used to slip past our common sense and get us to put their package into our shopping basket and taking it home to poison our families.

We know that profit's in the packaging, and that there are more food companies offering up more products today than ever before. The clamor for our food dollars is stupefying -- and that's what they count on. The "Truth in Labeling" laws that were meant to help us make informed choices have been subverted by this greedy gang to the point that you need a BS degree -- and I don't mean Bachelor of Science -- to work your way through a maze of marketing hype to the truth.

Of course, true food is what we're seeking here.

The easiest way to avoid the hype is to know your local farmers, buy their produce, and consume it as soon and unprocessed as you can. Much as I'd like to be able to subsist entirely on such healthy fare, I often find myself in the grocery store, trying to puzzle my way past the labeling bafflegab. Here is the wisdom I have been able to accumulate to help me wade through the mire of marketing misrepresentation on the shelves.

Most of us read food labels to try to understand what goes into the product in our hands . . . but do we really know what the information on the labels is trying to tell us? After diligently reading a label, chances are we are as confused as ever by the polysyllabic persiflage. With a little trick or two you can be in and out of the market in no time with bags full of healthy options to your kitchen and family table.

To enable their products to survive the long wait on the megamart shelves, the first thing food scientists reach for are the preservatives. My question is, will the chemicals that keep the juice red and the crackers crisp be good for me when I ingest them? And those government agencies assuring me that BHT and Red # 5 are not harmful -- can I trust them? As a regular Trader Joe's shopper, I began to notice over time that their labels seldom listed preservatives on their labels. I was a big buyer of the organic canned beans -- black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and so forth -- and proud of myself for becoming more vegetarian while saving so much money. I also noticed that the delicious soups and chilis I was making seldom needed to be salted when I seasoned them. Since these were staples in my kitchen, I thought I'd begin by studying the small print on the labels. Wow! The sodium content in the cans was so high, no self-respecting life form could survive. This method of preservation -- salting -- is as old as the caveman, and since salt is present in practically every product, its presence here, even in elevated quantities, was easy to miss. Here's an example: a 15 ounce can of Trader Joe's Organic Canned Black Beans contains 440 mg sodium per half cup serving. By way of comparison, the same sized can of Eden Foods Organic Black Beans contains 15mg of sodium. For me, this was an Aha! moment, BIG TIME. This set me on the road to critically studying labels, not believing everything I read, educating myself on what was actually inside . . . and earnestly moving my purchases toward companies who are honest and forthcoming in their labeling, and devoted to their customers' good health.

Clearly, I am not alone in this quest -- if you have read this far, you're questing too. Here are a set of simple rules developed by nutritionist and chef Jeff Novick, Registered Dietitian:

Rule # 1 -- Never, ever believe anything on the front of any product. . . ever.
Rule # 2 -- Always read the Nutrition Facts and scan the ingredient list.
  • Fat content should be no more than 20% of the total calorie content.
  • Sodium content should never be more than the calories; look for a 1:1 ratio.
  • Three things to check for in the list of ingredients:
  1. Whole grains
  2. No bad fats
  3. Limited added sugars

That's it ! Simple and effective. Take a few trips to the store to master these, and then you'll need about ten seconds to evaluate a package. Combine this with the simple idea that we should be eating good minimally processed plant based foods -- raw foods -- and limiting the volume of "foods" found in cartons, cans, bottles, and packages -- and we are well on our way to a successful health quest.

Let's go into more detail a little more detail on the nutrition science behind Jeff's rules. I'm not a doctor, scientist, or professor, but I am a serious chef, determined to make apparently confusing things easier to understand. Some of the ideas are elementary, but in the interests of our health, we must leave no stone unturned.

Rule # 1 -- Never, ever believe anything on the front of any product. . . ever.

If they marketing gurus are putting it on the front of the package, they're hoping it will be bright and shiny enough to distract you from the truth in small print they are required by law to include on the back.

Rule # 2 -- Always read the Nutrition Facts and scan the ingredient list.

There are only three numbers you need to find here to evaluate the product: Total Calories, Calories from fat, and Sodium content. Always consider the stated serving size, as it is often misleading. You can't eat just one!

It's not necessary to read all the other intentionally confusing numbers. Ingredients are listed in order of their presence by weight in the contents, and so the last few dozen may just be there to confuse and baffle. (Possible rule: if it contains more ingredients than you have fingers . . . leave it?) The daily values are a joke -- remember the food pyramid we all saw in grade school? That came from the same folks, and in truth it portrayed what the well-connected food producers needed to sell, not what we needed to eat. The daily value numbers are based on the other label numbers, which are often greatly skewed, and cannot be trusted. (This is a hotbed of consumer activism, and if it interests you, I encourage you to delve deeper. I have placed some good starting points on my website's resource list and I encourage you to do some research. You'll be amazed at what the food packaging industry can 'legally' get away with.)

Here's one of my favorite marketing loopholes, a highlight of our great country's labeling hypocrisy -- a short video clip from one of Jeff Novick's lectures. He's become a hero of mine -- a dynamic, educated, entertaining speaker. In this short clip he talks about some labeling games played by the marketing and food labeling gurus out there. It's worth ten minutes of your time to hear his explanations of some of the games played to get a product to "99% fat free" for labeling purposes, but that tell us nothing truthful about the "food" inside. Remember Rule #1 -- never ever believe anything on the front of a label.

Here are some of the details I find when I research the numbers proposed by Jeff Novick with regard to fat and sodium.

FAT -- We only need a small amount of essential fats, about 3-5% of our daily total calories. The "problem fat" is the part that isn't 'essential' -- it's cheaper fat, and we get quite a bit more of it than we suspect. The nutrition gurus who make recommendations about this sort of thing fall into two camps. The Low Fat camp -- all the healthy docs, Ornish, Campbell, McDougall -- call for daily consumption of 10-15% of daily calories. The High Fat campers -- the USDA, Heart, Lung and Blood Institutes, American Heart Association and American Dietetic Association -- recommend about 30-35%. What's the healthy guideline? For the 'real world scenario' Jeff Novick compromises at 20% fat content for packaged products. I find that I feel stronger and healthier if I hold to a lower number . . .and a higher standard.

Here's an example of evaluating a product for fat content in your daily allowance: Let's say a product has a total of 100 calories, and we're allowing 20% of that to come from fat. That would be 20 fat calories. For 300 total calories, 60 calories from fat would make our target . . . and so on. We have come to know that there are good fats and bad fats, and it's the baddies we have to watch out for. Here is a litany of the fats to avoid: saturated animal fats -- lard, chicken fat, butter, cheese -- saturated vegetable fats -- coconut oil, cottonseed oil, palm oil -- and man-made saturated vegetable fats -- partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, and shortening.

So for fat -- Check the calories from fat against the total calories, and avoid products heavy with bad fats. Period.

SODIUM -- The human body does not require a lot of sodium to operate efficiently and to maintain good health. The National Academy of Sciences (the NAS) reports that 90% of Americans take in harmful amounts of sodium each day, with only 10% of it coming from the salt shaker. They've call for a healthy minimum sodium intake of about 250 milligrams daily. If your diet consists mostly of fruits and vegetables and eat enough calories daily, you're probably getting about 500 milligrams, or twice what you need. The only 'official' recommendation for "too much salt" also comes from the NAS who are on record saying we should limit our daily intake to no more than 1,200-1,500 milligrams daily. If we take in more than 2,300 milligrams on a regular basis, we are harming ourselves. To me these sound like outrageously high numbers, but it is "official."

The real problem is that the processed foods we consume and stuffed full of salt, a cheap, tasty ingredient. Remember my example of the Organic Black Beans preserved with 440 mg of sodium in a half cup serving? (Who eats only a half cup?) There goes your daily salt allotment in one measly half cup!

Jeff Novick measures sodium intake with 'salt density ratio,' comparing the milligrams of salt with the total calories. Accepting the NAS's recommendation for safe sodium intake of 1,200-1,500mg, with an upper limit set at 2,300 milligrams. Studies suggest, and I tend to agree, that a good average daily caloric intake is around 2,300 calories. Keeping ourselves below the sodium upper limit while consuming an average daily caloric intake -- conveniently, both are 2,300 -- requires us to keep the ration of salt to calories BELOW one to one -- or as the mathematicians write it, 1:1. Easy to remember for our calculations in the market. So let's keep it below 1:1 . . . while striving to attain something more like 1 : 2 or better -- half the maximum salt, in the neighborhood of the safe level. Let's try not to be unsafe with something as silly as salt, okay?

SUGAR -- Oh boy, a favorite topic, recently cited as "low hanging fruit."

The main source of energy for your body is carbohydrates and sugars. Your brain needs sugar to operate. Sugars are not the problem, but some TYPES of sugars ARE the problem -- just like fats, the bad sugars are also cheap and deceptively satisfying (in other words, mildly addicting.) Sugars coming from fruits and vegetables are good; added concentrated refined sugars, not so much. In fact, not at all. Average Americans take in fully a fifth -- 20% -- of our calories as refined, added, concentrated sugars, more than our weight in sugar each year. Most of it is hidden in processed foods. Our daily sugar quota is easily satisfied in any season with whole natural foods like fruits and vegetables.

Rule #2 -- attention to the ingredient list -- will reveal added sugars, although they have a fabulous armamentarium of confusing names, in the product, so that's where you start. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, including some pretty fancy words for sugar. If the first ingredient is sugar, that means there's more sugar than anything else, but packaged foods usually use multiple sweeteners -- agave, honey, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane sugar, cane syrup, beet sugar, fruit juice concentrates sound pretty natural, but they are spart of the sugar load. Then turn $cience loose, and you get an even more confusing list, although many end in the chemical suffix for sugar, -ose: fructose, dextrose, maltose, lactose, glucose. . . Look for multiple added sugars. If you want to really learn the language of Sugar, Harvard -- they love to make long lists! -- has posted "How to spot added sugars on food labels" and someone named Melanie -- she doesn't like last names -- has posted "50 Names for Sugar You May Not Know." And if you like snark we do! you'll find a neat chart down at the end of this very article.

So walk with my on a mind experiment through the aisle of our favorite megamart, and choose a product for sober evaluation. Here's one: Wheat Thins! I grew up with Wheat Thins. Mom insisted they were part of a "healthy snack" and they could always be found in the cupboard and on picnics. On more than one long study night away at school, I easily devoured half a box at a sitting. The packaging appeals to the eye, eliciting sentiment -- "Original" on the front label, so I know it's going to taste like what I remember as a little girl. Says right here, "Whole Grains" -- that's gotta be good!, because it's bright yellow and has a picture of the wheat chaff. How could it harm us?

Rule # 1 -- I ignore the front label and turn the box over

Rule # 2 -- As already noted, the serving size is ridiculous: two crackers? Yet, total calories 140, Total Fat calories 45 . . .close to 32%. There are worse offenders but do I really want 32% of my daily fat to come from 2 of these little crackers?

Now here's where this product gets a little crazy as we continue with Rule # 2. The sodium content is 230, but that's nearly twice the calories. It should be BELOW 140 calories to qualify. Not so good.

Finally, let's check the ingredients. First up, whole grain wheat. That makes sense in wheat thins, but I wouldn't choose these if I'm seeking gluten free. Any bad fats? Sure: partially hydrogenated soybean oil -- not at all good for you according to Eric Armstrong's informative website, Tree of Light. Added sugars? To be sure: several different kinds, sugar, malt syrup, invert sugar. What in the world is that, upside down sugar? Darn right: it's sugar that's been heated until its sucrose breaks up into the more immediately available simpler sugars glucose and fructose, which taste sweeter and tend not to crystallize and go stale. Bakers love them because they soften baked goods while making them last longer. (For more information, here's Invert Sugars on Wikipedia.) And thank you for asking.

For extra credit, let's look for any secret ingredients. Aha! Here's BHT, familiarly known around the chem lab as Butylated Hydroxytoluene. In High School we learned that the '-ene's are olefins, commonly called waxes; luckily, for those who forgot that important fact, the internet exists, and informs us (at Wikipedia) and according to David at The Good Human, is not something we want to put in our bodies. The really good news about BHT is, it's a chemical we can count on to preserve the fat in our bodies just as surely as it preserves the fats in the crackers. That's exactly the kind of chemical we want to be bioaccumulating in the extra weight we're carrying . . . NOT.

So are we agreed? This old favorite we've been accepting all our lives does not deserve to go home with us . . . ever again!

What's this, an empty shopping cart? Let's park it and get over to the Farmer's Market while they still have some of those picked-this-morning peas and awesome pears. We probably don't need much from the supermarket. Then let's go home and spin up a smoothie!

How to Choose a Sweetener
[Source: Be Food Smart]

All my life, seeking to understand "energy," this strange force that seems to power everything, has moved me to study and share....

Not too many things rile me up, but the food fight between Agribiz and the Raw-and-Organics underway here in America and around the world has got my dander up....

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updated 26 June 2017