Hidden dangers on food labels — and how to find them

woman looking at food label in grocery store

By Dr. Susan E. Brown, PhD

When it comes to buying packaged foods, most of us rely on the ingredient list to know if the food is healthy. But in reality, the label can’t be trusted.

Manufacturers have a great many tricks for making packaged food sound healthier for us than it is. And contrary to what you’ve been told, food makers aren’t required to tell you everything that’s in their products, either.

Once again, it’s up to you to protect yourself and your family. And we’re here to help. Let’s start with the most common things you might see on a food nutrition label that sound good for you — but really aren’t. Then we’ll talk about much better options to try!

Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a thickening agent extracted from seaweed. Seaweed sounds healthy, right? But carrageenan offers none of the nutrient value that raw seaweed has. Worse, it’s implicated in gut inflammation. Its pro-inflammatory effects are so well known, carrageenan is used to induce gut inflammation in rats by scientists studying how inflammation impairs health. Some food makers are starting to remove it from their products, but many still use it. So — avoid the product if you see carrageenan on a label.

A better choice: Look for similar products that use pectin, a soluble fiber from fruit that is often used in making jam.

Soy

Organically grown, non-GMO soybeans have a multitude of healthy phytochemicals and proteins. But most soy products used in processed foods are not organic and are GMO. And many are soy derivatives, which is something else entirely than the soy products that have been safely consumed for centuries.

Even if you aren’t sensitive to soy (and a lot of people are), soy derivatives tend to be pro-inflammatory, and they have negative effects on thyroid function in particular. Textured soy protein is something to watch for. It’s basically the “castoff” portions of the plant, loaded with binders and salt and labeled “protein” to make it sound healthy. It isn’t.

A better choice: Nut milks or coconut milk are good alternatives to cow’s milk if you’re not nut-allergic. Just be aware they have less protein and calcium than either soy or dairy.

nutrition facts under a magnifying glass

Fiber

We’re all told that fiber is good for us. So “high-fiber” foods sound healthy, right? Unfortunately, too often they’re not authentic foods. High-fiber foods, particularly cereals, are often heavily refined, and then have fiber added back in. And companies are likely to add just one kind — insoluble (nonabsorbable) fiber, which is very inexpensive. While the fiber itself has health benefits, its flavor and texture are unappealing, prompting manufacturers to “improve” the product with loads of fats and sugars. Any health benefits you might get from the added fiber are more than offset by the negatives of the added fats and sugar. And if you’re not used to eating significant amounts of insoluble fiber, the gastrointestinal effects of adding it too fast can be unpleasant.

A better choice: Make sure you’re selecting cereals and breads with unrefined whole grains and limited added sugars. The fiber content should be 3 g or greater, or it’s not worth the trouble.

Fortified foods

Fortifying foods is often done to restore nutrients stripped out during processing. But what’s put back may not be the same as what was taken out — it need only be equivalent. So, for instance, processing grains removes both soluble and insoluble fiber, and insoluble fiber is what’s put back. The amount of fiber may be the same, but what kind of fiber you actually get isn’t. That’s a manufactured food product, not real food.

A better choice: Buy foods that have less processing to begin with. They’ll retain their original nutrients and won’t need any additions. They’re what your body is designed to digest and absorb.

woman eating an organic salad

Organic

If you want to limit your exposure to toxic chemicals, be very careful about how a package describes its organic food content. A label that says “Made with organic ____” does not mean the same thing as “organic.”

According to USDA rules, a product can say it’s made with organic ingredients if at least 70% of the product is organically produced. And if the label simply lists specific ingredients as “organic,” but doesn’t say either “Organic” or “Made with organic", you can be pretty sure that less than 70% of the product was organically produced.

A better choice: The USDA offers highly specific options for labeling organic ingredients. A food product that is labeled “organic” and carries the USDA Organic seal is required to have 95% of the ingredients (excluding salt and water) certified organic. You can feel pretty confident it’s free of pesticides or herbicides.

The nutrition label on packaged food is important in choosing what you’re going to eat — but it’s not telling you everything. To make good choices for you and those you love, you need to be aware of what it’s hiding too. Remember, when you avoid processed food completely, where you do all the “processing” in your kitchen at home, you don’t have to do so much detective work in the store.

Do you know the real story about the dangers of Splenda and other artificial sweeteners?
References

Barton A, “Kelp Is On the Way,” The Globe & Mail December 9, 2016, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/food-trends/eat-seaweed-for-the-health-benefits---but-dont-overdoit/article33281211/

Cleveland Clinic. “Soy Foods: Benefits of Soy,” December 2013, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17491-soy-foods/benefits-of-soy

Egan S, “How to Read a Food Label,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/how-to-read-a-food-label.

The Environmental Working Group, “Dirty Dozen: EWG's 2018 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php.

Hall M, “Fiber Facts About Cereal,” Today’s Dietitian 2012;14(12):30.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “Saturated fat, regardless of type, linked with increased heart disease risk.” https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/2016/12/19/saturated-fat-regardless-of-type-found-linked-with-increased-heart-disease-risk/

Martino JV, Van Limbergen J, Cahill LE, “The Role of Carrageenan and Carboxymethylcellulose in the Development of Intestinal Inflammation,” Frontiers in Pediatrics, 01 May 2017, https://doi.org/10.3389/fped.2017.00096

Nichols H, “Saturated fat may not increase heart disease risk after all,” Medical News Today December 27, 2016, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/314693.php

US Department of Agriculture, “Organic Labeling Standards,” https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/organic-labeling-standards.

US Food and Drug Administration, “A Food Labeling Guide: Guidance for Industry,” January 2013, www.fda.gov/FoodLabelingGuide