2010 Copyright Joy Kettler Gurgevich
J   Y of FOOD & YOGA
Joy Kettler Gurgevich - Behavioral Nutrition and Registered Yoga Teacher
   LABELS:  How to Know What You are REALLY Eating 
When diet 
is wrong, 
medicine is
of no use.
When diet
 is correct, 
medicine is 
of no need. 

~ancient Ayurvedic proverb
5215 N. Sabino Canyon Road 
Tucson, AZ 85750
It only takes a few extra minutes to read labels in the grocery store (take a magnifying glass…the print is often incredibly small).  Detailed label reading guidelines are below, but there are several simple “rules of thumb”:

  • If you can’t pronounce the word, you probably don’t want to eat it, so put the product back on the shelf.
  • If the ingredient list is more than two lines, either return the product to the shelf, or read the label VERY CLOSELY.  The more ingredients there are, the more likely the product will contain additives which may compromise your health. 

There are thousands of food additives.  Some are perfectly healthy, such as herbs and spices.  But many additives are synthetic laboratory concoctions, created to falsely stimulate our sense of aroma, taste, and appetite.  These synthetic additives do not occur in nature.  They compromise our health, and they compromise the health of our planet. 

Label Reading Guidelines

The Nutrition Facts label and the Ingredients label are present on all packaged/canned/frozen foods. The Nutrition Facts label defines quantity and the Ingredients label defines quality. Fresh fruits and vegetables, and most meats now have origination labels, which identifies locally-grown foods.  

The Nutrition Facts label contains  information regarding the approximate amounts of various components of the specified food.  Serving size and servings per container are stated first.  The number of calories per serving and calories from fat are listed next.  The section immediately following  lists (in grams)  total  fat, saturated fat, cholesterol (mgs), sodium (mgs), total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, sodium, and protein contained in each serving.  Various micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are listed beneath the macronutrients, including calcium.   The information on the Nutrition Fact label is most useful for product  comparison and not necessarily intended for individual requirement calculation.   The two exceptions to this would be the sodium and calcium content of the product.  In addition,  Percent Daily Value (a set of standard nutrient-intake values developed by the FDA and used as a reference for expressing nutrient content on nutrition labels)  is calculated on the label, which is based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

  • 1. Select a Nutrition Fact label. Relate the number of calories with the serving size.  Often the stated serving size is small, with a corresponding low calorie advertisement. For example, a product may advertise “only 50 calories per serving”, but the serving size  is ¼ of the candy bar, not the entire bar.  
  • 2. Select two Nutrition Fact labels of similar products, such as crackers or cookies.   Compare the  categories of total fat, saturated fat,  cholesterol, and sugar.  Note that when a product advertises low fat, it is often high sugar. 

The Ingredients label contains information regarding the actual  contents of the specified food.  For example, the Nutrition Facts label may state that total fat is 4%, but the ingredient label will specify the type of fat/oil the food contains (eg., olive oil, cottonseed oil,  partially hydrogenated sunflower oil).  Being mindful of health, one would choose  a product with monounsaturated  fat/oil.  The amount of trans fat is usually not listed on the food label.  Trans fat can be calculated.  Subtract the total grams of polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat from the grams of total fat.  The number remaining is the approximate amount of trans fat.  Trans fats have been hydrogenated and during this process the oils acquire the health-threatening properties of saturated fats.  Another example where the ingredient label clarifies quality involves the carbohydrate contents.  If the Nutrition Facts label lists total carbohydrates as 42 grams, one can glance at the Ingredient label and determine whether the carbohydrate is derived from white flour or a more health promoting grain, such as quinoa, spelt, brown rice or amaranth.

The Ingredients label alerts the consumer about food additives and animal products, many of which are of concern.  A food additive is a substance added to food during its processing to preserve it or alter its color, texture, flavor, or value. Additives also include substances that may become components of the food indirectly, such as cereal packaging paper, if the cereal absorbs even a small amount of the material.  Flavoring agents make up the largest single class of additives and include salts, spices, essential oils, and natural and synthetic flavors.  Additives that alter texture include emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners.  The additives used to preserve food are primarily chemical microbial agents (benzoates, propionates and sorbates).  Antioxidants are added to foods to prevent fats and oils from becoming rancid and to prevent discoloration of smoked or canned meats.  Many additives are beneficial.  Antioxidants, such as vitamin E (tocopherols), retinoids (vitamin A) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) help retard spoilage.   
Great controversy exists concerning the safety of some additives, despite approval by the Federal Drug Administration.  Below is a list of some additives that are unsafe or poorly researched.

Artificial Colorings:
  • Blue 1 is found in bakery products, beverages, and candy.  Limited research indicates a small cancer risk.
  • Blue 2 is in pet products, beverages, and candy.  A large study indicates that it caused brain tumors in mice. The FDA maintains that there is “reasonable certainty of no harm.”
  • Green 3 is found in beverages and candy.  Limited research indicates possible bladder cancer risk.
  • Red 3 is used in maraschino cherries and pistachio nuts, and other food products. Research links it to thyroid cancer in rats.  It is banned in cosmetics.
  • Yellow 5 (tartrazine) is one of the most widely used food colors, added to many yellow-colored foods such as spaghetti, puddings, gelatin, soft drink, sherbets, ice cream, cereals and candy, pet food,  and many drugs, including some antihistamines, antibiotics, steroids, and sedatives.  It is a known inducer of asthma, hives, and other allergic conditions, particularly in children.
  • Yellow 6 is found in sausage, gelatin, beverages, bakery products, and candy.  Animal test indicate that the dye caused tumors of the adrenal gland and kidney. It may also cause allergic reactions.

Other Unsafe Additives:
  • Acesulfame Potassium is an artificial sweetener found in chewing gum, diet soda, and no-sugar desserts and bakery products.  Safety tests done in the 1970’s indicated it may cause cancer.  The FDA has not done further testing, but allows it to be used in the food supply.
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)  is an artificial sweetener found in diet soda and frozen desserts.  It causes sensitivity in some people, including symptoms of seizures, migraine headaches, hives, disturbance in nerve function, and dizziness.  Recent Italian research in animals suggests risk of lymphoma, brest cancer, and leukemia.  People with the rare disease PKU (phenylkentonuria) must avoid aspartame.
  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole  (BHA and BHT)  is an antioxidant/preservative found in packaging of many cereals, chewing gum, oil, and potato chips.  It helps prevent rancidity.  Animal studies suggest it is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
  • Olestra is a fat substitute found in Lay’s Light chips and Pringles Light chips.  It is a synthetic fat, which does not occur in nature.  It has no calories because it passes through the digestive system.  Many people experience severe diarrhea, loose stools, cramping, and flatulence. 
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a taste-enhancing ingredient and is known to cause damage to the nervous system.  It is disguised in other names, including “hydrolyzed vegetable protein”, “vegetable protein”, “natural flavorings”, and “spices”. 
  • Partially Hydrogenated Oil is found in many baked goods, icing, microwave popcorn, pie crust, shortening and stick margarine, and fried restaurant food.  By chemically adding hydrogen to the vegetable oil molecules, a semisolid fat is created.  This chemical process creates trans fats, which cause LDL cholesterol to raise, and HDL cholesterol to lower.  
  • Potassium Bromate is a dough strengthener found in white flour.  Bromates usually break down into harmless bromides, but bromate causes cancer in animals.  Potassium Bromate is not used in California.
  • Propyl Gallate is an antioxidant/preservative found in oil, meat, some chicken stock bases, and chewing gum.  Animal studies suggest that it might cause cancer.
  • Saccharin ( Sweet ‘N Low) is a known cancer-causing compound in rats when administered over two generations. The affects on humans will be observed in future generations.  A National Cancer Institute study indicated that long-term use of saccharin caused higher rates of bladder cancer.
  • Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Nitrite is a coloring and flavoring additive and a preservative which is found in processed meats such as bacon, corned beef, ham, and smoked fish.  It stabilizes the red color of meat and adds flavor.  Research indicates cancer risk.
  • Sulfites (Sodium Bisulfite, Sulfur Dioxide) prevent discoloration in dried fruit, shrimp, wine, and processed potatoes.  Sensitive people, especially asthmatics, can have severe reactions to sulfites. 
  • Phosphoric Compounds (phosphoric, acid, calcium phosphate, sodium phosphate, all of which, in excess, can disturb the body’s ability to absorb calcium, found in soft drinks)

The best way to approach the dilemma of food additives is to begin a nutrition lifestyle which focuses on wholesome foods which include fresh vegetables/fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans/legumes, and range-fed animals.  By adopting this lifestyle,  few packaged and processed foods are purchased, and few additives are consumed.  
An additional step is to consider the purchase of organic produce and meat.

  • Choose a label from your home pantry (bread, cracker or   cookie).   Determine from the ingredient label any additives which may be harmful to health.  Find an alternative and healthier version of that product at the grocery store by comparing ingredient labels.

Organic Fresh Produce
Eating ORGANICALLY  simply means eating foods which have been grown without agrichemicals…no pesticides, no herbicides…no chemical fertilizers. So, it means that you reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals and you also support farmers who farm sustainably.

In addition to the additives contained in certain foods, there are many other agrichemicals that become part of our food during the stages of propagation, harvesting, etc.  Pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides are included in this group.  Research indicates that there may be health risks from ingesting these chemicals.    It is logical to assume that pesticides and other agrichemicals can be harmful to health. Pesticides are fat-soluble and so they concentrate in the oil portion of plants (including olives). The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C., reports periodically on pesticide health risks. http://www.ewg.org/node/21700

Generally, the twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables are:
Bell peppers (both red and green)
Mexican cantaloupes
Green beans
Chilean grapes

Exposure to pesticides can be reduced by 50% if an individual chooses to select fewer of these fruits and vegetables, or to buy them organically.

Organic Animal Products
Organic animals are raised without prophylactic antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, and aren’t genetically modified or given GM feed. Pesticides are fat-soluble and so they concentrate in the fatty/oily portion of animals. Organic, grass-fed beef, and other organically raised animals, and free-range eggs are more nutritious and contain no added chemicals.  

Conventional meat production involves heavy use of prophylactic antibiotics and growth hormones, primarily to prevent rampant disease in over-crowded stockyards, and to produce a larger (and more profitable) animal at market. Not only are these practices tainting our food supply and compromising our health, but these practices are inhumane. 

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) 
This Act requires food manufacturers to disclose whether products contain any of the top eight food allergens.  The law, which took effect January 1, 2006, mandates that the labels of foods containing milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy declare the allergen in plain language on the ingredient list or via 
  • the word “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen – for example, “Contains milk, wheat” – or 
  • a parenthetical statement in the list of ingredients – for example, “albumin (egg)” 
Such ingredients must be listed if they are present in any amount, even in colors, flavors, or spice blends. Additionally, manufacturers must list the specific nut (e.g., almond, walnut, cashew) or seafood (e.g., tuna, salmon, shrimp, lobster) that is used. While more than 160 foods have been identified as causing allergic reactions, the top eight allergens cause 90 percent of food-allergic reactions.
  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. 
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. 
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. 

Except for "use-by" dates, product dates don't always refer to home storage and use after purchase. "Use-by" dates usually refer to best quality and are not safety dates. But even if the date expires during home storage, a product should be safe, wholesome and of good quality — if handled properly and kept at 40° F or below. If product has a "use-by" date, follow that date. 
Additional Resources

  • A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives by Ruth Winter, MS
  • Excitotoxins:  The Taste that Kills by Russell L. Blaylock, MD
  • People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -  www.PETA.org