I was on a forum the other day where we were talking about reading food labels. Navigating deceptive language can be a full-time job. How do you know what it all means? One woman put it best when she asked:
“How did you learn about this misinformation? So many ingredients for so many different foods and drinks. I don’t even know where to start on where I’m being misled. Even on things I think are healthy and not obvious junk. It’s so overwhelming …”
Take sugar, for example. It’s easy to think sugar is sugar. But it’s just not that easy. Sugar will be listed on labels in a variety of ways depending on the type of sugar it is.
Basic simple sugars include:
Solid or granulated sugars include:
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Cane sugar
- Cane juice crystals
- Castor sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Cory syrup
- Crystalline fructose
- Date sugar
- Demerara sugar
- Diastatic malt
- Ethyl maltol
- Florida crystals
- Golden sugar
- Glucose syrup solids
- Grape sugar
- Icing sugar
- Muscovado sugar
- Panela sugar
- Raw sugar
- Turbinado sugar
- Yello sugar
Liquid or syrup sugars include:
- Agave syrup
- Barley malt
- Blackstrap molasses
- Brown rice syrup
- Buttered sugar
- Carob syrup
- Corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Golden syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Rice syrup
- Refiner’s syrup
- Sorghum syrup
And this doesn’t include artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes!
Are you confused yet? Me too!
Why food labels are misleading
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of controversy around food mislabeling. Who do you point the finger at?
It could be the FDA’s fault for having outdated guidelines.
Maybe it’s the fact that the FDA allows words and phrases with misleading health claims to be prominently displayed on product packaging. Does anyone truly think a Baby Ruth candy bar is healthy, even though the ingredients list 4 grams of protein?
Whether logic plays into it or not, misleading words only add to the confusion. How can you trust anything when nothing seems to mean what it should?
The average US supermarket today has just over 31,000 products sitting on their shelves. If you try and get your shopping done in a reasonable time, how are you supposed to navigate the aisles AND select things that are good for you? Especially when labels state things like:
All-natural – the product may not have added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances, but natural doesn’t have to equate to healthy.
Sugar-free – this means the product doesn’t contain refined cane sugar. Any of the other forms of sugar are okay.
Pasture-raised – pasture-raised products do not require third-party verification. That means many animals “pasture-raised” are also fed supplemental grains.
Superfood – this is primarily a marketing term with minimal scientific basis behind it.
Gluten-free – gluten is a general term for storage proteins in certain cereal grains; think wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Nope, the vegetables you’re eating can’t be gluten-free because they’re veggies, not grains.
Made with real fruit – you’ll often see this on things like gummies or children’s juice boxes. What this truly means is it’s made from fruit juice concentrate, which is high in fructose. If you truly want the benefits of real fruit, eat real fruit.
Whole grain – grains like wheat, barley, and oats are edible seeds from grasses. When grain is refined, it’s made into things like white flour or white rice. If you want the benefits of whole grain, be sure the label states “100% whole grain.”
Where to begin
Years ago, when the very first Eat This, Not That book made its way onto the bookshelves, I fell in love with the concept.
It’s great advice. And it’s where anybody should start when they want to pay attention to what they are eating.
We all have an internal compass as to what we should eat. What’s healthy. What’s good for our bodies.
An apple or a candy bar?
A donut or a handful of nuts?
These are obvious choices. You instantly know which is better for you without a lot of thought.
Where things get murkier is when you’re navigating 31,000 products on the supermarket shelves. What brands are better? Which cereal should you choose? Is organic really worth the cost?
Where do you start?
Start where you are
Where people fail is when they think they can make big changes overnight. Instead, congratulate yourself on realizing that you want to change. And pick the one thing you’re willing to give up.
I remember when I decided to eliminate red meat. I switched to turkey ground instead of hamburger, and hated the first bite I put in my mouth.
But I kept at it. I found new ways to cook with it. And eventually, it became my norm.
Pick one thing you’re willing to swap out. Then work at it to incorporate it into your life. Use Google to find healthier substitutes, and be willing to try different things.
Plan your snacks carefully
What’s your weakness?
We all have things we love. The food items you crave because you enjoy eating them.
I LOVE chocolate. I’m also an ice cream connoisseur.
Neither one is great for a plant-based diet, or even for my health.
But everyone deserves their favorite foods from time to time. So it’s important to have options instead.
I would never eat a standard candy bar anymore. But I have found a variety of chocolate bars that kill my sweet tooth when a craving starts. TCHO offers innovative chocolate bars that are 100 percent plant-based. They have plant-based baking chocolate, and cacao nibs too.
I’ve also found vegan ice creams made from oat or coconut milk. My local ice cream shop Salt & Straw comes out with new flavors every month, and they always have a vegan option.
Don’t discount making your own snacks. I regularly make my own seed crackers and power bars. That way I know the ingredients, and I can make them with foods I enjoy.
Instead of grabbing your old stand-bys, do a little research and select new and improved snacks … for when the cravings strike.
Eat for immunity
Living through a pandemic taught us all that we need to think a little more about immunity.
The key to healthy plant-based eating means putting as many nutrient-dense food items on your plate throughout the day. Select foods rich in:
- Beta carotene – sweet potatoes, mangoes, broccoli, and tomatoes
- Vitamin C – citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, and broccoli
- Vitamin D – fortified almond, rice, or soy milk, and mushrooms
- Zinc – wheat germ, beans, nuts, and tofu
- Probiotics – yogurt and fermented foods, such as tempeh, sauerkraut, and kefir
- Protein – nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils
Choose quality over quantity
Sometimes only the real thing will do. If that’s the case, choose the highest quality product you can find.
I’ll use ice cream as an example. You can easily go to the supermarket and buy ice cream at a very low cost. That will also have the highest amount of chemicals, and provide a very low quality taste.
Compare that with the ice cream I mentioned above. It’s much higher cost, and the company cares about using quality ingredients. You can taste the difference immediately.
So much so that I often need just a tablespoon or two to cure my craving.
And I don’t feel the effects later that day.
Learn all you can
I’m shopping more online than ever before. Why? Because I can do my research first.
Small companies often offer deals on shipping costs, or product discounts for signing up for their newsletters. It’s a great way to learn more about their products, and buy only what truly inspires you as you surf online.
It makes you a more conscious buyer, and creates better eating habits by paying attention to what’s out there.
Questions lead to more questions, and slowly you start to discover a lot about what Big Food has done to our food supply.
You’ll end up a better shopper, a better eater, with a healthier body too.
And that’s a very good thing.