Can you trust a food label?

A friend of mine, Kaymann Woo, got me to looking at food labels (more specifically, beverage labels) by pointing out that his fruit drink had no fruit in it. I began looking at what I drank more closely, as I was trying to lose weight and was trying to drop “unnatural” things from my diet. I found that my favorite drink had the same issues – lots of things I could not pronounce, and questions about what exactly natural extracts and flavorings were.I found that my “sparkling mountain water, naturally flavored and with vitamins and antioxidants” really was a chemists dream. It has (in order of inclusion) water, natural flavors, malic acid, potassium benzoate, sucralose, and another 10 ingredients. Delicious.

This led to research on flavorings, I found this CBS video segment from 60 Minutes which is informative. But these were just the start. I started noticing that “healthy” foods were not so healthy, like the “Healthy Apple Chips” I bought the other day, “made with real apples.” They turned out to be dried and ground apples mixed with high fructose corn syrup, and formed into what looked like apple slices. The first ingredient in them was the corn syrup. Not so healthy.

How about a vegetable juice so many people buy because it gives lots of servings of vegetables in just one can? It is made with 100% vegetable juice! Read it again, it is not 100% vegetable juice, one of its ingredients is 100% juice from vegetables. There is also 690mg of sodium in one 11.5 oz can (and natural flavors, and some other goodies). It has plenty of good stuff in it, but it is certainly not healthy with all that salt. Yet they enjoy almost $1 billion dollars in sales per year.

Here is a good article on food labels from the Seattle Times, where they explore food labels a bit. The Mayo Clinic also has a “how to read the label” article.

The big one I have found is serving size. I recently discovered that an Italian ice product I like, which comes in what looks like one of those single serving ice cream containers and has reasonable nutrition information, actually has 2 servings in each container. One serving is just a few spoonfuls, so to eat the whole container is pretty darn unhealthy. Or the prepared Cuban sandwich I love – 1 sandwich, 2 servings, 500 calories.

How about “white meat only” on your chicken? According to the government, it can have no dark meat, but it can have other “stuff.” There are a bunch of Federal labeling rules, but they are relatively lax when it comes to the actual packaging of food.  Or, have we discussed “natural flavors” such as vanilla flavoring? It is from castorium, which is beaver excretions from the far end of the animal. Yuk.

Food companies are in business to sell you food, not to make you healthy. But they understand that “healthy,” “low fat,” “low sodium,” and “sugar free” sell. As such, they package things in packages to entice you to buy. Even the color of the label matters – Cornell University found that the color green on the label actually increases people’s perception of food being healthy, even when it is not. We are not talking uneducated people, we are talking people who look for healthy food.

Read and understand the labels. You might be surprised at what you are eating.