Ingredient Labels Matter

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

While there are multiple sources driving your food choices–from media to health “experts” to labeling, claims, and lingo—it’s what’s in your food and what’s being done to your food that really matters.

Food Regulations

An excerpt from What The Fork Are You Eating?

“Today, your food is regulated through the joint efforts of several agencies. In a nutshell, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) keeps an eye on all the plants that are grown and animals raised in their natural habitat, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures that your products (and drugs) are safe for consumption. As there are many harmful chemicals added to food, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also gets involved to ensure that these substances remain at subtoxic levels so everything you ingest is positively protected.”

The concept of regulating food began in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln established the USDA. As more products began to hit the market, so did untested chemicals in food. As a result, Congress allocated funds to begin testing the safety of food products with the scientific tools of the times. By 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed prohibiting the misbranding and adulteration of foods, drinks, and drugs. While this was a positive step in theory, there was no mandatory pre-market testing of foods. By 1914 this changed and food companies had to show the effect a chemical additive had on humans. However, manufacturers continued to make products with chemicals and inferior ingredients. By 1933 the FDA was born to up the ante on regulations. While surely foods today are more strictly regulated and the scientific tools to keep food safe abound, substances added to food are a slippery slope.

What’s In Your Food

An excerpt from What The Fork Are You Eating?

“According to the FDA, a food additive is a substance that has no proven track record of safety and must therefore undergo testing for approval by the FDA before it can be used in a food. However, there are plenty of ingredients in the foods you eat every day that are not defined as additives by the FDA, but as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) because they have been:

  1. deemed “safe” by FDA scientists for intended use based on “published studies, which may be corroborated by unpublished studies and other data and information”

  2. used in food for a long period of time (with no “scientifically based” concerns); thus their use is exempt from FDA approval”

Unfortunately the FDA, USDA, and EPA have real limitations. But with the right information, you can actually become your own health advocate and eat as safely as possible. Section One in What The Fork Are You Eating? offers a deep dive, but here’s the gist. It’s these top 10 things in your food, or being done to your food, that are just not cool:

1. Chemical Preservatives

What they are: Chemical compounds used in foods to preserve the flavor, color, moisture and “nutrition” for long periods of time. They are categorized as antimicrobials (ie. benzoates, sorbates, sulfites, nitrates, and nitrites) and antioxidants (ie. BHA, BHT, propyl gallate, and TBHQ).

Better for you alternatives: Food can be safely preserved with packaging techniques (vacuum packs, canning, bottling), cold storage, and preparation methods with salt, acid, and sugar. In addition, safer preservation ingredients include: ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and its derivatives including sodium erythorbate, erythorbic acid, and sodium isoascorbate; alpha tocopherol (vitamin E); and naturally occurring citric acid.

2. Artificial Flavors and Enhancers

What they are: Chemical concoctions used to flavor foods or enhance existing flavors.

Better for you alternatives: “Natural” flavors, while a better option, are still chemical concoctions similar to the artificials just from “natural” sources so remain skeptical. Food that is flavored naturally with ingredients like fruit juice or concentrate, herbs and spices, and real food like cheese are best bets.

3. Artificial Colors

What they are: Dyes, pigments, or other substances that add color to a food, drug, or cosmetic. While roughly nine dyes are approved for use in food, drugs and cosmetics, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6 are used 90 percent of the time.

Better for you alternatives: Excessive intake of artificial colors have been linked to cancer, DNA damage, and neurological challenges. Opt for coloring that comes from fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices such as berries, beets, annatto, and paprika.

4. Artificial Sweeteners

What they are: Chemicals whose sweetness comes from molecules that do not exist in nature and are typically 200-700 times sweeter than cane sugar. Products containing artificial sweeteners most commonly boast, “light,” “low sugar,” “reduced sugar,” “no added sugar,” “zero,” “zero calories,” or “calorie-free.” This means that instead it likely contains one of the following: saccharin (Sweet N Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), acesulfame-K (acesulfame potassium), sucralose (Splenda). In addition, there are sugar alcohols like xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol as well as novel sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit.

Better for you alternatives: The sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners, though not ideal, are better options than the artificials. That said, the best option for adding sweetness is sugar from sugarcane (ie. white sugar, sugar in the raw, brown sugar, molasses); date sugar; coconut sugar; honey; maple syrup; brown rice syrup; and agave. For those needing to carefully manage blood sugar, minimize added sweetness.

5. Sugar and Its Many Euphemisms

What they are: Sugar is the general term used for sweetness derived from processed sugarcane or sugar beets (and corn as in corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and is broken into three categories: white sugar, brown sugar, and liquid sugar. Buyer Beware: there are over fifty different ways that sugar can be listed on your ingredient labels.

Better for you alternatives: When possible, go with “cane sugar” (versus “sugar” which usually means it’s from genetically modified sugar beets; also look out for any “corn” sugar). Also consider honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, and even date and coconut sugars.

6. Trans Fats

**What they are: ** Hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils that are man-made fats that begin as genetically modified cottonseed, canola, and soy oils. Hydrogen is pumped into the liquid to make it solid at room temperature. Why? Because they are cheap, stable, and have a longer shelf life than butter. While not used as frequently today in food production due to the severe health implications of consumption, trans fats can still be found in ultra-processed foods.

Better for you alternatives: Since a food product can still contain a small amount of trans fats per serving even if labeled “trans fat free” or “zero trans fat,” be sure to check a product’s ingredients for “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” oil. Choose foods with straight up oil or butter as both are real food versus man-made.

7. Pesticides

What they are: Chemicals used to kill pests, weeds, and fungus that negatively impact growing food. They fall into the following categories: insecticides, rodenticides, herbicides, and fungicides. While the EPA determines if a chemical is safe for food through a lengthy process of risk assessment and management, and ultimately determines the lowest dose allowable on food, many are carcinogenic and neurotoxic and could have adverse effects, even at a low dose.

Better for you alternatives: While buying 100% organic all of the time reduces chemical residues on your food, it’s not attainable for most due to higher price points and accessibility. Therefore, the best way to pick and choose produce is to reference the Environmental Working Group’s shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce, the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. As for other foods, try to avoid non-organic soy and corn (as well as their derivatives like soy sauce and tortilla chips). For animal foods, consider organic where you can; remember that animals eat diets of highly sprayed soy and corn so you consume what they consume.

8. Antibiotics

What they are: A group of potent medications used for fighting off bacterial infections; used prophylactically and in the treatment of disease among animals raised for food. Most of this antibiotic use is found in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) otherwise known as factory farms whose conditions for living can breed disease.

Better for you alternatives: Avoid antibiotic residues in food by choosing high-welfare animal foods. Animal Welfare Approved by a Greener World and Certified Humane are the most trusted third-party certifications designated by a label on the packaging. Next best choice is USDA Organic. If you have a local farmer, head over, learn about their farming practices, and if it’s an option, buy direct and support your local food economy.

9. Hormones

**What they are: **Reproductive and maturation stimulants given to animals raised for food production so farmers can produce more, faster, and larger for the food companies they service. Researchers believe that measurable hormone residues, present at slaughter in the tissue of animals, contribute to premature maturity in young girls, an occurrence associated with higher risk for breast cancer later in life.

Better for you alternatives: Hormones are banned in poultry and pork so best to focus on consumption of high welfare (as noted above) or USDA organic meat and dairy, neither of which permit the use of hormones.

10. Genetic Modification

What they are: Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs) are plants or animals created through gene splicing techniques. This process merges DNA from multiple species creating potentially unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that cannot occur in nature.

Better for you alternatives: The best way to avoid GMOs is to look for the Non-GMO Project certification on food packages. For fresh food, it’s best to understand what’s on the GMO list (ie. soy, corn, canola, papaya, etc.). GMOs are not permitted in organic foods so that’s a surefire way to avoid them.

When food shopping, always choose fresh whole foods first. Frozen and canned are okay, too. For packaged goods, be mindful of ingredient lists as they tell the true story of your food.

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