Deciphering Food Labels

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Avoid potentially harmful ingredients, such as genetically modified foods, by reading packaged food labels.

Most of us know that boxed mac and cheese isn’t what you’d call a nutritious food. And while fresh foods, such as fruits and veggies, are the healthiest choices, our fast-paced  lives often steer us toward prepackaged food options. With that in mind, here are some things to watch out for on food labels.


Hidden salt lurks in many processed foods because it’s an inexpensive way to add flavor and extend shelf life. Experts recommend taking in no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, but most Americans eat nearly twice that. A turkey sandwich made with processed lunch meat, cheese and condiments, for instance, has about 1,300 milligrams of sodium — more than half your recommended intake — and that’s not including chips on the side! Unfortunately, high salt consumption leads to high blood pressure and higher incidences of heart and kidney diseases. So be sure to check the sodium content of any packaged food you buy, and opt for herbal seasonings to add flavor to food when cooking. (Read Avoid Salt to Reduce Blood Pressure to learn more.)


Sugar and high fructose corn syrup are popular ingredients in processed foods. Ideally, you should have no more than 10 teaspoons (160 calories, 40 grams) of added sugar per day. Sugar can cause excessive weight gain, which often leads to obesity, and puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease. It also adversely affects cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

So read ingredients lists to know how much sugar is in a product. All the following terms can be considered added sugars: sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose and maltose. Ingredients are listed in order of weight within the food, so if the list starts with sugar, or contains several forms of it, then it’s safe to say sugar is a major ingredient.

And don’t assume artificial sweeteners are much better for you. A recent animal study at Purdue University concluded that artificial sweeteners can actually cause you to gain weight. Plus, these ingredients are far from natural. For instance, sucralose, sold as Splenda, is made through a chemical process that adds chlorine atoms to sucrose. And high doses of saccharin (a.k.a. Sweet’N Low) were found to cause bladder cancer in lab animals, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that all saccharin products have a warning label. High levels of phenylalanine found in aspartame (labeled as NutraSweet or Equal) can cause brain damage in certain people, so these products also must include a warning label. (Read The Perils of Too Much Sugar for more information.)

Genetically Modified Foods

The most commonly genetically modified (GM) crops include soy, corn, canola and cotton. All of these crops are used to make vegetable oil, and if you’ve ever checked the labels of processed foods, you’ll find most of them contain either soy or a corn derivative, such as high fructose corn syrup.

In much the same way the FDA allows drug manufacturers to conduct their own safety tests on new pharmaceuticals, companies that manufacture genetically modified foods conduct their own safety tests on this new biotechnology. (For a primer on GM foods, read Genetically Engineered Food: Promises & Perils.)

This means that few animal or human research studies have been conducted on genetically altered foods, according to Jeffrey Smith, author of Genetic Roulette. And the existing studies are bleak — finding problems such as organ damage, precancerous conditions and enhanced food allergies.

The most eye-opening studies deal with genetically altered soy. For instance, soy allergies in the United Kingdom rose 50 percent when GM soy first was introduced. And in the only GM food study conducted on humans, genes were found to transfer from GM soy into the DNA of the test subjects’ intestinal bacteria. Even more troubling was that the survival of the bacteria suggests it had the herbicide-tolerant function “turned on,” and was producing herbicide-tolerant proteins within the human gut. To learn more, visit Smith’s Web site, and watch for a series of articles on GM foods in upcoming issues of Mother Earth News.

The best way to steer clear of genetically modified food is to buy organic. Foods that earn the USDA Certified Organic logo can’t contain genetically modified ingredients. Or simply stop buying prepackaged foods and focus instead on cooking with whole foods.

To avoid spending all day reading labels in the grocery store, consider researching and replacing one product category on each visit — read salad dressing labels one week, for example, then check out cereal labels next time you’re at the store. If you gradually replace prepackaged products as they run out with healthier choices, you can minimize potentially high upfront costs.

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