When you’re trying to eat healthy, foods labeled “all natural” or “diet” can be hard to resist. But I’ll warn you, don’t be fooled. These and many other “healthy” labels hide a lot of unhealthy – and sometimes even toxic – ingredients.
In this post, I’ll uncover the truth behind some vague and misleading ingredients on food labels. I’ll also take a look at how these ingredients can be dangerous to your health and share some tips that will help you discern if the foods you’re buying really are good for you.
Mystery Foods Defined
“All natural” sure sounds healthy, but it doesn’t actually mean much. The FDA doesn’t define the term, except to say that these foods shouldn’t contain artificial color or flavors, or other synthetic substances. They may, however, contain preservatives, added sodium or even high fructose corn syrup. Depending on your dietary needs, these foods may contain more sugar, calories or sodium than you’d like.
Words like “diet” and “healthy” also appear on countless packaged foods, but they’re both unregulated, misleading and relative. A “nutrition bar” may be healthy compared to a cupcake, but how does it stack up against fresh fruit and nuts? And many diet foods simply reduce calories by replacing sugar with low-calorie artificial sweeteners that are even worse for your health.
When buying bread or crackers, avoid products labeled “multigrain” and instead look for the words “whole grain” or “100% whole wheat.” Multigrain products may include several whole grains, several refined grains, or both. Look for grains you recognize on the ingredient list, including whole wheat, brown rice and oats. (Terms like flour or durum wheat indicate that some parts of the grain may be missing, meaning you’ll be missing out on their nutritional benefits.)
“Natural flavor” is one ingredient that sounds innocent enough, but it’s really a catch-all term that describes flavor derived from almost any type of plant or animal, regardless of how highly processed that extract may be. Worse, many times monosodium glutamate (MSG), aspartame and a number of other flavor enhancers are sometimes hidden under this category. MSG and aspartame are neurotoxins and have been linked to a number of health conditions, including headaches, muscle cramps, and a number of more serious neurological disorders.
On the bright side, “organic” is a label you can trust. Though the term was once applied loosely, a USDA organic label now means the food is produced without antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or bioengineering. Of course, that doesn’t mean all organic foods are healthy; you’ll still want to check the label to know how much fat, sugar and calories it contains.
How to Read Food Labels for Better Health
The best way to make sure you’re eating healthy is to buy whole, unprocessed foods and prepare them at home. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. That’s why it’s so important to get familiar with food labels. You can check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) site to learn how to read the Nutrition Facts label found on all packaged foods. The FDA also provides great nutrition resources for kids.
But I like to keep it simple. When you do reach for prepared foods – even organic or other healthier options – look at the ingredients first. A short list is always better than a long one, and you should be able to recognize all of the ingredients. If the list reads more like a science project than a recipe, put it back and look for a better option!