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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Label.ology: Reading and Understanding Ingredients

How to Read a Label
Lesson 3

Let’s talk ingredients. We see the lists on packages and sometimes they read like Russian novels. How could all those substances be in one food and be good for us? Of course you know I am going to say the fewer ingredients the better, but what about the ingredients themselves? How do we know what’s what?

When you see food ingredients you can identify, you might think all is well. Not so fast. Packaged foods are notorious for using the least expensive ingredients possible and disguising them with words that make them sound healthier than they might be.

Polished or partially polished rice sounds healthier than white rice.

Wheat flour doesn’t mean whole wheat flour.

Sugar is one of the most deceptive ingredients listed in foods. For instance, a manufacturer might use a sweetener that is a combination of sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugar ingredients but they list them separately. Why? So that none of them are present in a quantity that shoots sugar to the top of the ingredient list where it would be if they listed it as one item.

Manufacturers love to “pad” the ingredient list with healthy-sounding foods like spirulina, berries, fruits  or herbs. You’ll notice these ingredients are always at the end of the list. They are in miniscule amounts, making their addition pretty meaningless to your health. Label padding is designed to make a product appear healthier than it is.

Disguising more dangerous ingredients is another deception on labels. Sodium nitrite sounds harmless enough but it’s a probable carcinogen, with studies linking it to many cancers.

Carmine sounds natural, right? Made from the bodies of red cochineal beetles, carmine sounds so much better than smashed bug body coloring in your strawberry yogurt.

Yeast extract is used to hide monosodium-glutamate (MSG) without having to say MSG on the label.

There’s no requirement for manufacturers to list chemicals, contaminants, pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, bisphenol-A or any other toxic substance on labels.

GMOs are undetectable and not required to be on the label.

So you can see why the fewer ingredients, the better off you are with a product.

Next up? Vitamins and Minerals, oh my!

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