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“READ LABELS” is the nutritionists’ darling phrase. What exactly are you looking for on the label? Here’s a quick primer.

First off, how long is the list of ingredients? The longer the list, the more likely the food contains processed, artificial ingredients and chemical preservatives. Does the label have ingredients you cannot pronounce? Step away and move on.

Just because the label says “organic” or “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s all natural or even healthy. Example:
Nature’s Path Buckwheat Wildberry Frozen Waffles
They’re organic and gluten free!
Ingredients:
Water, organic brown rice flour, organic potato starch, organic corn flour, organic soybean oil, organic tapioca starch, organic evaporated cane juice, organic buckwheat flour, organic potato flour, leavening (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bicarbonate, monocalcium phosphate), natural flavor, non GMO soy lecithin, organic blueberries, sea salt, sodium citrate, sodium alginate, citric acid, organic elderberry juice extract.

A couple things here: watch out for soy lecithin. It’s everywhere. It’s an emulsifier (read: makes things spreadable, or acts as a binder or filler that helps to prevent packaged foods from spoiling) added to many processed foods, Soy lecithin is actually made from the sludge left over after soy has been processed. Those who are sensitive to soy may react to it, and products that have been derived from ubiquitous ingredients such as corn and soy cause an increase in food allergies and sensitivities. Soy flours, proteins, and oils are in everything because soy is very cheap. Avoid soy in any form in processed foods. It’s ok fermented, such as miso or tempeh, or natto, in small servings. Additionally, most wheat, soy, and corn you see in packaged food has been genetically modified (GM) unless otherwise stated, and the jury is still out on how GM foods affect our bodies. GM foods have been loosely linked to stomach tumors and cancer. Best to stick with real food unless you’d like to use yourself as a test subject for this.

“Natural flavor?” Not really. This a chemical, and MSG hides under this guise. In fact, MSG hides in a lot of ingredients: hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, modified food starch, and maltodextrin, to name a few. MSG is an excitotoxin, meaning it kills nerve cells in the brain and can cause migraines, anxiety, and other adverse reactions.

Sodium alginate is just a chemical salt compound, but it a’int real salt or sea salt, so your body doesn’t process it as salt, and this can lead to blood pressure irregularities.

Watch out for anything that says 100% Natural, All Natural, No Preservatives, No Artificial Ingredients. Read with a discerning eye and stay away from anything that isn’t a food. “Natural flavors” isn’t a food. Manufacturers want you to think their products are natural, but chemicals and artificial ingredients can still be present in these foods. See http://www.truthinlabeling.org/ for more on this. Also, beware of low fat, fat free, sugar free, which usually means more sugar or more artificial flavors or chemicals.

When reading the nutritional info, make sure you check out serving size, how many servings in the package, calories per serving, etc. For example, a box of cereal could say “150 calories per serving,” and the serving size is 1/2 cup. You may pour 2 cups in your bowl for breakfast. That’s 600 calories. Too much if you’re watching your weight.

What to look out for specifically:
The big offenders are partially hydrogenated oils and corn syrup (or high fructose corn syrup), which lead to obesity and cardiovascular problems. Avoid these at all costs. Watch out for the sugars, too. They hide under evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, anything ending in -ose. Also:
anything enriched has been refined, meaning parts of it have been stripped away and artificial vitamins or minerals have been added back to it. It’s not a whole food. Your body doesn’t process these foods or the artificial vitamins/minerals the same way and you won’t get the same benefit as you would from eating a nutrient-dense whole food.
Mono and diglycerides may be soy, corn, peanut or fat based.
Nitrites or nitrates are preservatives that have been linked to cancer. Same with sodium benzoate. Again, if it doesn’t sound like a food, avoid!

Let’s look at a good label: a Cherry Pie Lara Bar. I like Lara Bars. They’re fruit and nut bars that are delicious and make excellent snacks. One bar contains 190 calories and 8 grams of fat. Also, 4 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein. Gluten, Dairy and Soy Free! Great! But what are the ingredients?
Dates, Almonds, Unsweetened Cherries.
All food here! No funny stuff!

Here is where I would say that if you just stick to real food, you won’t run into chemicals, but obviously that’s not realistic. We all grab packaged foods for convenience or for a treat, so when you do, read the labels with a critical eye. Just because you buy it at Whole Foods doesn’t mean it’s healthy.