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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Label.ology: Reading and Understanding Labels Product Names

How to Read a Label
Lesson 5

Don’t let product names fool you.

The name of the food product has nothing to do with what is actually in it. Big brand names make products like "Guacamole Dip" that contains no actual avocado! Lots of fat and flavors, but no actual fruit. Made with hydrogenated soybean oil and artificial green coloring, they hope gullible consumers will buy the product thinking they're getting avocado dip at a great price when they are buying an artificially flavored and colored chemical brew.

Food names often use words that describe ingredients not found in the item at all. A "cheese" cracker doesn’t necessarily have to contain actual cheese. Flavoring and coloring is enough.  "Creamy" rarely means the food contains real cream. A "fruit" drink or snack doesn’t need to contain a single molecule of fruit. As long as companies have chemically and artificially created the equivalent of the nutrients in the real food, products can be freely named.

“Whole grains” is a big buzz phrase on products, but often what the product contains is flour with added fiber, making it the nutritional equivalent of a whole grain. Except it isn’t.

Remember that product names are designed to sell the product, not describe what’s in it.

GMOs are another story altogether. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, I think we can all agree that GM ingredients need to be labelled. Opponents of this contend that GM ingredients are a process, not an actual ingredient and since labels don’t carry processing requirements, GMOs need not be on labels. But genetically modifying foods is not just a process. Alternative DNA and proteins are introduced into foods that would not be there under normal farming or even processing techniques. Since new ingredients are being introduced into the foods, the consumer has the right to see them on the label.

However, since the passage of The DARK Act, our right to know what’s in our food is in real jeopardy, so you need to be able to read between the lines and sidestep GMOs if you choose. Ingredients like canola oil, corn oil and other corn byproducts, soy and soy byproducts, aspartame, sugar beets, synthetic vitamins, alfalfa and vegetable oil would all be GMO ingredients unless labelled as certified organic.

We need to begin to use these little panels to guide us in the quality and quantity we should be eating.

The ingredient list on a packaged food is not so easy to decipher as the nutrition panel. As you know, ingredients are listed from greatest quantity to least. Some common buzzwords on packages won’t hold up under the scrutiny of label reading if you know what you are looking at.

What now? My general tips for reading labels.