If you follow a whole foods diet and eat nothing from a box, bag or can, then you don’t need to worry about reading labels. Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules, simplifies the confusion about what is good for you and what isn’t with these seven words – “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” (He calls processed foods “edible food like substances”.) Realistically however, even the healthiest of eaters sometimes eats something with a label on it. And understanding what it says is important.
The fewer the ingredients listed on the label the better. The most prominent ingredient is listed first and the least listed last. Most of the ingredients should sound like food, like organic whole wheat flour or organic short grain brown rice, instead of a name you can’t pronounce. The names of chemical additives and preservatives are long and difficult to say. Sometimes a safe sounding name is used instead of the chemical name. For example yeast extract is often used to hide MSG or monosodium glutamate, a flavoring for heavily processed foods to which many people have a reaction. What is worse is that there is no requirement to include the names of chemical contaminants, heavy metals, bisphenol-A, PCBs, or other toxic substances found in the food. It’s also best to avoid foods with a lot of high fructose sugars (sugar has many names) and trans fats. Sugars and salt should be towards the end of the ingredient list.
Another concerning issue with food and food labeling is the use of genetically modified or engineered foods (GMO) – mostly soy and corn – that are in almost all processed foods. GMO foods have insecticides built into their DNA, which supposedly are not digestible and will break down, but studies are showing otherwise. The dangers of GMO foods are numerous and there are many unknowns. Gary Hirschberg, former CEO of Stonyfield Farm yogurt has launched “Just Label It” in coalition with the Center for Food Safety, which has filed a petition with the FDA asking to require labeling of GMO foods. Irridiated foods or those made from concentrate are labeled, so should GMO foods. More than 550,000 people have shown support of the petition.
When you next pick up a box of crackers or cookies, read the label and look for hidden unhealthy ingredients. Notice whether it says “non-GMO”. Is it really “All Natural”? Be smart about the food you buy and demand proper labeling. The health of our food system depends on it.
Information compiled from Food Rules, by Michael Pollan, http://www.naturalnews.com/, and Boston Uncommon article from the Boston Globe by Jenn Abelson, February 12, 2012.