Hidden dangers on food labels — and how to find them
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 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 better choice: Look for similar products that use
pectin, a soluble fiber from fruit that is often used in making jam.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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