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How to read those labels

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POSTED February 1, 2009 4:25 a.m.
A few weeks back I wrote an article about foods that could prolong your life.  In it I mentioned whole grain foods and the fact that a whole article could be written on that subject.  Well, that may be true but this article will be more about understanding the meaning of certain terms on your food labels.  The reason this is important is that we Americans have been advised to “choose a variety of grains daily, with at least three being whole grains.”   

Remember, a whole grain is one in which all three parts of the grain are present.  The outer bran layer is full of fiber, 50-80% of the grains minerals and phytochemicals which are anti-cancer agents.  The endosperm is full of complex carbs, protein and B vitamins.  The third part is the germ, also full of proteins, B vitamins and antioxidants.  “Refined foods”, although this sounds like a good thing, are foods which contain only the endosperm, reducing the nutrient value by 25-90%.  Some other terms to watch out for include:

“100% Wheat” which simply means that the only grain used is wheat, but it’s probably not whole wheat.

“Multigrain” which simply means different grains are used bu t they may or may not be whole grains.

“Stone ground” which means that the grain is coarsely ground and may contain the germ but not the bran.  Often, refined flour is the first ingredient, not whole grain flour.

Pumpernickel” is coarse, dark bread made with rye and wheat flours.  It does not contain whole grains.

“Made with whole grains” is little, “white” label lie. The consumer is led to believe that this is a whole-grain cereal or waffle, yet the package label is not legally required to say how much “whole grain” is in the product. Its main ingredient could be refined flour with just a small amount of whole wheat added. So, the food won’t contain all the fiber and other nutrients associated with whole grains.

If only we lived and shopped in a pure world where labels told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But while consumers rely on labels to make wise nutritional choices, food companies use labels to sell their product. Sometimes the two functions of a label - providing accurate information and enticing someone to buy the product - are in conflict. Labels can be misleading, especially if you don’t learn to read between the lines and examine the fine print. Knowing what the words on the label really mean is a big step in learning to make nutritious choices at the supermarket.

Ignore the hype on the front of the package. This part of the label is designed by the food processor’s marketing and advertising departments. It will contain whatever trendy words will help sell the product. While the meanings of many of these terms are regulated by law, it’s still easy to be deceived by them.=2 The food may not be as good for you as these large and colorful words want you to believe. Manufacturers cannot legally lie on a food label, but they can stretch the truth a bit. Be wary of these tricky terms:

Consider the word “pure.” Everyone wants to eat food that’s pure. You would not want to put contaminated food into your body. But “pure” has no regulated, agreed- upon meaning in food labeling. It tells you nothing about what’s in the package that perhaps should not be there.

“Natural” is probably the least trustworthy of all the label terms. While the term “natural” sounds appealing, it really says little about the nutritional quality of the food, or even its safety. In reality, “natural” is empty of nutritional meaning. Consumers believe that “natural” means the food is pretty much as Mother Nature grew it, but this is seldom the case. And even then, “natural” is not the same as nutritious, or good for you. The fat marbling in a New York strip steak is “natural,” but it’s not good for your arteries.

“Made from” simply means the food started with this product. For example, the claim “made from 100 percent corn oil” may be technically correct, yet it is misleading. Consumers are led to believe they are eating 100 percent corn oil. They think of fields of corn under a clear blue Iowa sky. But a lot can happen to corn oil before it gets to the grocery store. The label really means the processor started with 100 percent corn oil, but along the way may have diluted or hydrogenated it, changing it into a fat that will clog your arteries, not one that flows free and golden. Another common label lie is “made from natural...” This simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source, but by the time the food was processed it may be anything but “natural.”   

And my personal favorite:

“Made with real fruit” is a good example of a misleading claim. The law does not require the label to say how much real fruit is in the product. This boast is particularly prevalent in snacks for children, which may contain a grape or two in a snack that is otherwise mostly sugar.  Try explaining that to a 4 year old in the cereal aisle when she wants a Spongebob fruit snack!

“Enriched” is a tip-off that something bad was done to the food, requiring another process to put some of the good stuff back in. Enriched flour or enriched white bread are not as healthy as their whole wheat counterparts.

Why does any of this matter?  Because I care about people’s health and I want all of you readers to be savvy shoppers who aren’t fooled by these trendy, “buzz words” which make you feel like you are doing the right thing nutritionally, when in fact, you aren’t. The product label you see on the front of the food is just an advertisement. It’s trying to get you, the consumer, to buy it over the competition. The only way to truly know what the food contains is by reading the nutrition label. You are ultimately responsible for what you put into your body and the more education you have, the better prepared you will be to make those decisions.  

Dr. Van Wyngarden is a chiropractor who practices in Ripon. Her favorite patients are children and pregnant women.   She welcomes questions regarding health and wellness, exercise, nutrition and the care of children. For further information, please call the office @599-2699.

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