Learning To Speak Food Labelese

Learn to Speak Food Labelese

By: Sapna Fliedner MSN, HHC

Rule #3 in Food Rules, an eater’s manual from Michael Pollan, advises, “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.”

These are words to live by.

With more and more highly processed pseudo-foods lining the grocery aisles, the list of unrecognizable ingredients conjured up in a lab only contribute to consumer confusion—and chronic health problems. Your best bet is to shop the perimeter of your store and prioritize whole, organic, and local foods whenever your budget allows. However, for those times when packaged goods are your only option, rely on these simple guidelines to make sure you are making the wisest choices for your health.

-More ingredients mean the more processed the food. If there are dozens of ingredients, put the box down. Also note that ingredients are always listed in order of concentration, so the first ingredient is the main ingredient.

-Steer clear of artificial colors—you know the culprits: Red # 3, Yellow # 5 and the like. While on the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) list, most wreak havoc on your health. (See Resources for more on food dyes.)

-Also avoid artificial flavors or flavor enhancers such as MSG (monosodium glutamate) and about 1,500 others. MSG, which among other things is known to contribute to headaches, shows up in a slew of boxed products and is commonly found in Chinese food. Manufacturers get away with listing these flavor enhancers in a generic way by claiming that they are proprietary blends, so be wary of anything merely listed as “artificial flavors.”

-Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin contain zero calories—and zero nutrients! Keep your eyes peeled as many products contain artificial sweeteners when you might not expect them to… These are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and each has its own area of concern, so it’s best to avoid them, despite their low-cal claims.

-High fructose corn syrup, also called dextrose, is a highly refined sugar made predominantly from GMO corn. It’s found in large quantities in many foods and is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

-Trans fats show up in many forms, such as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils. Because your body doesn’t recognize these oils, they can place undue burden on your internal systems.

-Natural preservatives are citrus (ascorbic acid), vinegar, and salt. In contrast, artificial preservatives sound exactly like lab creations, and include such substances as calcium propionate, nitrates, potassium sorbate, sulfur dioxide, and others.

To this last point, Pollan writes in Food Rules: “The food scientists’ chemistry set is designed to extend shelf life, make old food look fresher and more appetizing than it really is, and get you to eat more. Whether or not these additives pose a proven hazard to your health, many of them haven’t been eaten by humans for very long, so they are best avoided.”

Enough said.Just eat real Food.



“Food Dyes: A Rainbow of Risks,” Center for Science in the Public Interest:

Sugar’s Many Disguises: Recognizing Sugar on Food Labels:


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