Label Talk: Things labels say—or not

Lose weight, live longer, save money and impress your friends!

Sound good? Well, you can have it all—or at least, more of those things—if you do just one thing: read food labels. Food labels are regulated, and they tend to be true. They are in fact a wealth of information. But there’s a catch: you have to learn how to interpret them.

That’s because even a label that’s technically true can mislead you if you don’t know how to read what it’s saying—and just as importantly, what it’s not saying. Here’s a quick sightseeing tour to stimulate your interest.

One of my favorite examples seemed to blurt out the truth. On its front it claimed to be nature’s nature’s most potent source of vitamin C; on the back it said, “Not a significant source of vitamin C.” Both statements were true, and the product may well have some merit. Unfortunately not all product labels are so candid, and even this product changed its labeling.

There are in fact many claims a label can have, ranging from fair-trade to vegan to non-GMO, but let’s focus on the ingredients and Nutrition Facts.

What Does It Say?

If you want to lose weight, live longer and save money as promised above, pay particular attention to your sugar consumption. Over 40 percent of Americans are obese, with costs of obesity-related illnesses running into the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Added sugars are a prime cause, both for providing unnecessary calories and for messing up your metabolism (not to mention suppressing immune functio

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping added sugars to less than 5 percent of your calories, which at 4 calories per gram is 25 grams per day in a 2,000-calorie diet. It seems fair to say that less is better when it comes to added sugars because they contribute nothing but calories. (And note: calories are how we measure energy; so an energy bar has lots of—you guessed it—calories.)

Along with complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats are also calorie sources. But unlike sugar, you actually need them to have a strong, healthy body. Especially if you’re relying on plant sources for protein, pay close attention to the protein in your foods.

In my last article I pointed out that commercial almond milks have only a gram of protein from 5 almonds per cup. At that rate you’d have to drink three gallons a day to get a modest 48 grams of protein. Don’t try to raise a child on it. Especially if you’re relying more on plant-based foods, you can’t afford surprises. So read that label.

Where’s the Wheat?

Which of the following are whole wheat flour?

All-purpose flour, wheat flour, organic enriched unbleached wheat flour, durum semolina flour.

Well, the answer is none of the above. Unless you see the words “whole wheat flour” that’s almost certainly not what you’re getting. And why does that matter? Because whole wheat contains the bran and germ where most of the valuable nutrients are concentrated. The ghostly remaining starchy part behaves a lot like added sugar in your body.

You’ll find it challenging to find a truly whole-grain bread. In addition to the generic names above, you’ll see a lot of proprietary names for flour blends that may have some whole wheat or other whole grains. Which brings up an important point.

“Made With”

You should suspect the worst when you see “made with” on a label. It doesn’t always mean “there ain’t much,” but that’s what you should expect, especially for ingredients that cost anything more than water or sugar.

So here’s where you can impress your friends, again as promised above, because this is where you can use some detective skills.

I recently looked at a package of organic maple sandwich cookies that claimed to be “made with 100% pure maple syrup.” That sounded impressive, because maple syrup is not cheap. So how much is actually in the cookie? Did “made with” mean “ain’t much”?

You can start by looking at the ingredient list. By law the ingredients are listed in the order of their weight. Sure enough, organic maple syrup is in the list, but there are two other sweeteners higher on the list. Maple syrup is down there just below sea salt.

That’s a great clue because sea salt contains sodium and 40 milligrams of sodium is listed in the Nutrition Facts panel. With a little googling and basic arithmetic you can figure out that it takes about 100 mg of salt to provide that 40 mg of sodium, and that’s being generous because other ingredients can also provide sodium.

The maple syrup can’t weigh more than the salt, and with a little more googling and arithmetic, you can conclude that there’s at most two drops of maple syrup per cookie. No wonder they add “natural flavor.” Speaking of which…

Natural Flavor

Natural flavors are a big subject, and they should also raise suspicion. My most recent shocker was the suggestion that a natural flavor or flavoring need only be part natural, or worse, something neither you nor I would call natural. The subject came up because of an opposite example: a bacon-flavored vegan chip that uses truly natural flavorings, but because those flavorings don’t come from bacon, they have to be labeled as artificial flavors.

On the other hand, it turns out that so-called natural vanilla flavor can be produced from the castoreum that beavers squirt to mark their territory. Now that may impress your friends, but please don’t try to impress them over dessert. Fortunately your food is far more likely to be flavored with artificial vanillin, usually produced from wood pulp. The most natural vanilla flavor would of course come from vanilla beans as pure vanilla extract.

One Last Thing

There’s something one particular label doesn’t say, and it’s left me curious (and at times furious) for years now. There’s a liquid aminos product that’s promoted as a healthy alternative to soy sauce. Read the label and you’ll see that it has only 320 mg of sodium per serving. A competing soy sauce has 940 mg per serving.

So if you’re avoiding sodium, the liquid aminos product is a turn-around slam-dunk bucket, isn’t it? Well, no, because you’re comparing a one-teaspoon serving of liquid aminos with a one-tablespoon serving of soy sauce. A tablespoon is three teaspoons, meaning the sodium content could hardly be more identical.

So whenever you compare food labels, take the serving size into account. If I’m nearby, I’ll help you with the arithmetic.