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Reading food labels: What to watch out for

Naomi de la Torre is freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom with two delightful boys, ages three and six. Naomi has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona, is a self-proclaimed salsa diva, and can make a killer octopus ...

Eat smarter

Food activist and author Michael Pollan says the number one food rule is, “Eat food, and avoid edible food-like substances.” Great advice, but for the average American, even just deciphering food labels is confusing. Here's what to watch out for when reading food labels.

Whether you are dealing with food intolerances or you simply want to eat healthier, knowing how to read and understand food labels is key. We are living in an age where we are surrounded by fast food, cheap food, genetically modified food and every other kind of food anomaly. Even seemingly healthy foods often contain confusing ingredients that sound more like things you would use during a science experiment than food. If we are going to heed Pollan's advice, we are obviously in need of a simple lesson in reading food labels.

1


Biggest comes first

The first thing you need to know about food labels is that foods are listed in order of quantity. This means that if sugar is listed as the first ingredient, then even if the product is touted as "healthy" or "wholesome" on the packaging, you are still eating mostly sugar.

2Shorter is better

As Michael Pollan advises, "Don't eat anything your Great Grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." The less ingredients a product lists, the better. Particularly suspect are foods that contain ingredients with indecipherable chemical names 50 letters long.

3Pay attention to serving size

You may notice that a "snack size" bag of chips often has two or more servings. This allows such products to appear healthier because it lowers the percentage of sugar, salt, trans fats, and more in relationship to daily value.

4Limit your sodium intake

The average American consumes well over the top recommended daily amount of 2,400 mg of sodium as listed by the American Heart Association. Sodium amounts are clearly listed on labels, but pay attention to serving sizes or you will be consuming more than you realize.

5Sugars and sugar substitutes

Sugar has a bad rap, but artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharin, aspartame and acesulfame have been shown to be equally (or even more) damaging to your body. Just because a product does not contain sugar does not mean it is healthy. Be wary of products that claim to be healthy, but contain these types of artificial sugars.

6High fructose corn syrup Is not the same as sugar

Forty percent of all sugars used in processed foods come from HFCS, which is especially problematic considering the dangers it poses to human health because of the way it is metabolized. If you are going to eat something with sugar, stay away from foods that contain HFCS.

7Avoid trans fats

Trans fats have been linked to numerous health concerns, including heart disease. Many packaged foods including crackers, cookies, breads, margarine, shortening and other snack foods contain trans fats. Look for foods containing "partially hydrogenated oils," as this is how trans fats are listed.

8No more hidden food allergens

The top eight food allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat) are now listed on food labels. If you are suffering from a food allergy or intolerance, the labels are much more clear.

Highly processed foods taste good, but they are not good for us. By simply reading labels and watching what we are eating, we can become much more aware of what we are putting into our bodies and how these things are affecting our health. By educating ourselves, we can gain vast amounts of control over what we are eating and our well-being as a whole. As the great Roman poet Virgil said, "The greatest wealth is health."

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