Why You Should Know How to Read a Nutrition Label
by Chris Kresser
That may sound simple enough to do, but the truth is, following an ancestral diet can be difficult at times unless you know how to read a nutrition label. That’s because refined grains, excess sugars, seed oils, and soy—dangerous post-Paleolithic toxins—often hide in plain sight, under sneaky and scientific names or within other unexpected ingredients. What’s more, processed foods—including some marketed as “health” foods—typically contain food additives that may also be harmful to health.
But you have to know what these offending substances are, and where they lurk, in order to avoid them. That’s why I’ve written this article: so that you can become a savvier grocery shopper and leave health-harming foods on the shelf and out of your cart.
Soy, added sugar, refined grains, and industrial seed oils are hard to avoid—especially when they show up on a nutrition label under another name. Find out how to decipher what’s really in your food. #nutrition #paleo #chriskresser
Don’t Be Fooled: Here’s How to Read a Nutrition Label
It goes without saying that a nutrition label can tell you a great deal about whether a food is, well, nutritious. Is it good or bad for you? Most people start by looking at a product’s Nutrition Facts label, which spells out how many servings are in that package of food (including the size of a single serving), the nutrients it contains, and what percentage of the Recommended Daily Value (according to federal health guidelines) of those nutrients the product provides. (Note: While these federal guidelines are meant to be helpful, sometimes they fall short of being complete, as with the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for a number of essential vitamins and minerals. For more on this, see my article “What Is Nutrient Density and Why Is It Important?”) Of course, this information is extremely valuable in helping you decide whether to enjoy or reject a food. But for this article, I want to focus on what’s typically found below that panel: the ingredients list.
Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers are required to list all ingredients in a food on its nutrition label, abiding by the following rules and regulations: (1)
- Ingredients must be listed in descending order, with those used in the greatest amount listed first.
- The names of any FDA-approved color additives, such as Blue No. 1 or Yellow No. 5, must be included on the label.
- Certain ingredients can be listed collectively under umbrella terms like “spices,” “flavors,” “artificial flavoring,” and “artificial colors” (those colors exempt from FDA approval).
- If a food (other than certain egg products, alcohol, poultry, and most meats) contains one of the eight major food allergens (milk, eggs, fin fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans), it must be included on the label. (2) If a collective color, flavor, or spice contains an allergic ingredient, that ingredient should be listed separately.
Notice something about the examples cited in these rules? They mostly encompass unnatural items, nothing our Paleolithic ancestors would have consumed. If you spot ingredients that fall into the categories of color additives, allergens, or artificial anything, put down the product that contains them: it’s not your ancestral diet friend.
That said, within health and nutrition communities, thoughts vary as to the best way to scan an ingredient list and which specific ingredients constitute a healthy/acceptable food. Here are some methods that are popular:
Five Ingredients or Less
In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan writes, “Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients.” Other maxims include: Don’t eat foods that contain ingredients you can’t pronounce or that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (3, 4, 5)
Popular health sites suggest scanning the first three ingredients on a label, since they make up the largest part of that food, and avoiding buying the product if refined grains, sugar, or seed oils are in the top three. Other wisdom suggests buying a product only if the first three ingredients are whole foods. (6)
Two Lines, Just Fine
You may have also heard the advice to avoid buying any product with an ingredient list longer than two, or sometimes three, lines. (7)
As Pollan himself says, though, the number you adopt for how many ingredients or lines you’re willing to accept is arbitrary. The take-home message to distill from all of these “rules” is one you already know; I consistently share it here, in my books, and with my patients: for optimal health, eat real, fresh, whole, unpackaged foods and avoid processed foods, particularly highly processed foods, as much as possible. Processed foods are likely to contain the ingredients that promote disease, not health.
Of course, I know it’s not realistic for you to prepare every single meal or snack from scratch. What’s more, even some of the real foods I recommend as part of a healthy ancestral diet—such as butter or coconut milk, as well as nuts, meat sticks, and other Paleo snacks—come in a package with a label. So, the next best thing to eating all whole foods all the time is to eat mostly whole foods and the healthiest packaged options you can find. Keep reading for tips on ensuring you make the best choices, in part through sleuthing out risky ingredients. Before you know it, you’ll be a label expert.
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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: What They Mean for Your Health
I agree with the popular wisdom that you want to avoid packaged foods containing grains, sugar, and industrial seed oils—not just if they’re listed as one of the first three ingredients on a label … but if they’re listed at all. I often call these three ingredients the “three horsemen of the apocalypse.” But there’s really a fourth rider in this pack: soy. I’ve written extensively about why these four dietary toxins are to blame for so many people today being overweight, sick, and suffering. To share just a few of the many reasons:
Grains Can Lead to Obesity, Diabetes, and Other Diseases
Gluten, which is present in wheat and other commonly eaten cereal grains, damages the intestine and makes it leaky. Researchers now believe that a leaky gut is one of the major risk factors for conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune disease. (8, 9) Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are associated with chronic illness. (10) In general, the absence of grains and refined carbohydrates in hunter–gatherer populations results in incredibly low incidences of Western diseases.
Seed Oils Aren’t Conducive to Optimal Health
Industrial seed oils are chemically refined, bleached, and sanitized in order to be suitable for human consumption, which should tell you something about their impact on health. They are perhaps the most significant contributor to the imbalanced omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio characteristic of Westernized diets and thus play a significant role in chronic inflammatory diseases. (13) What’s more, the repeated heating of industrial seed oils depletes vitamin E, a natural antioxidant, while inducing the formation of free radicals that cause oxidative stress and damage DNA, proteins, and lipids throughout the body, explaining their connection to high blood pressure, heart disease, and intestinal and liver damage. (14, 15, 16)
Excess Sugar Has Extensive Links to Chronic Conditions
Research on sugar indicates that a high intake of added sugars poses numerous health problems, including an increased risk of gut dysbiosis, decreased immune function, cancer, and neurodegeneration. High-fructose corn syrup has been linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, asthma, and female reproductive issues. (17, 18, 19)
Soy Can Disrupt Endocrine Function, Especially if You’re a Woman
As I’ve shared before, soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the potential to cause infertility and promote breast cancer in adult women. And, soy can stimulate the growth of estrogen-dependent tumors and cause thyroid problems, especially in women, among a host of other health issues.
Hiding in Plain Sight: The Aliases You Need to Know
The main disguises used by each of the “four horsemen”? Sneaky names and tricky incarnations. They can also be ingredients within an item on the ingredient list.
A Grain by Any Other Name
If you’re poised only to be looking out for wheat, corn, or rice on labels, you’ll miss other cereal grains to avoid. In addition to those, check labels for barley, sorghum, oats, rye, millet, spelt, farro, semolina, teff, and graham, and flours made from these grains. Also:
Decipher the Code Words
Malt is a germinated and dried cereal grain, typically barley. Look for it on labels as malt, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, and malt vinegar.
Maltodextrin, an additive often found in bouillon cubes, can be made from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat.
Be Soup Savvy
Although I highly recommend bone broth, read labels on packaged stocks and soup bases carefully, as they can contain flour.
Tofu isn’t the only source of soy. When it comes to processed foods, soy is everywhere. In fact, Americans now get almost 20 percent of their calories from soybean oil, precisely because it’s so rampant in packaged products. (20) Avoid any ingredient with the word “soy,” including:
- Soy protein isolate
- Soy flour
- Soybean oil
- Soy milk
- Soy sauce (most brands are also made with wheat)
- Soy lecithin (although it may be less of a concern than other soy iterations)
Soy can also be called soya, vegetable protein, textured vegetable protein (TVP), or okara (soy pulp).
The Many Stage Names of Sugar
There are probably more than 60 different names for sugar. Some of them may be familiar to you (like high-fructose corn syrup), while others may sound like they belong in a chemistry set (ethyl maltol) and not in your food. A sampling of aliases to avoid:
- Sucrose (aka table sugar, composed of glucose and fructose)
- Fructose/high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Glucose/glucose syrup
- Barley malt/barley malt syrup (also a grain source; see above)
- Maltose (also a malt sugar/grain source)
- Rice syrup (another grain source)
- Cane juice/evaporated cane juice/dehydrated cane crystals
- Corn syrup/corn syrup solids (yep, also a grain!)
- Ethyl maltol
Sometimes, manufacturers will try to get around consumers’ concerns by claiming that their product is “naturally sweetened.” That sounds okay until you consider that it simply means the sweet taste is not a result of a man-made chemical sweetener (for example, aspartame), but is plant based—as in grains or sugar cane. But it’s still excess sugar your body doesn’t need, even if it’s “organic” sugar cane!
There are, however, sources of sugar that are acceptable in an ancestral diet:
A substantial body of scientific evidence indicates that we should minimize our consumption of refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners as much as possible. However, this doesn’t mean we should be afraid of natural sugars in whole, real foods, like fruits and sweet potatoes.
While a product’s Nutrition Facts panel lists total sugar content, it’s difficult to know how much of that number comes from added sugars versus those that are naturally occurring. By 2021, the wording “added sugars” will be a required line in the Nutrition Facts panel; the FDA has initiated a revised labeling system (and some packages already reflect the new regulations). Still, it’s important to understand where hidden sugars may lurk, and that’s why you need to know sugar’s other names and read ingredients lists carefully.
Although oil is easier to spot than sugar (you should see the word “oil,” after all), if you eat processed foods, it’s important to know that you probably consume a much higher quantity than you think. Industrial seed oils are ubiquitous, so it pays to read the ingredient list from beginning to end. Which oils am I talking about? Not olive oil or coconut oil, but:
- Soybean (also a source of soy)
Note that many times the specific oil won’t be named in favor of the generic “vegetable oil.” This almost always indicates a refined seed oil. Be on the lookout especially for any “partially hydrogenated” oils, as these are sources of artificial trans fats, which have been shown to increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and other inflammatory conditions—even at relatively low doses. (21) Although the FDA has determined that these oils are not safe for consumption and has barred manufacturers from using them in their products, extended compliance dates mean some products containing these oils cold be on shelves for several more years. (22) If a product contains an oil described as “expeller-pressed” or “cold-pressed,” it means that heat and chemical solvents haven’t been used in its processing. Although they’re better choices than highly processed seed oils in that aspect, health issues still remain, and I advise avoiding these types of oils as well.
Beyond the Four Horsemen: “Paleo” Food Additives to Avoid?
Even processed “health” foods, including some Paleo-friendly products, contain additives that wouldn’t pass the no-ingredients-you-can’t-pronounce rule.
In general, gums used to thicken or stabilize almond milk and coconut milk, such as guar gum, gellan gum, and xanthan gum, can cause some digestive distress, and I recommend you avoid them when you can, especially if you already deal with digestive problems. But don’t fret if you do consume small amounts, as it’s very unlikely any of these gums will actually cause harm.
You may want to be a bit more wary of carrageenan, an additive extracted from red algae also often used in non-dairy milks. Carrageenan has produced intestinal damage in some animal studies, although it has been frequently portrayed as significantly more harmful than what is supported by available evidence.
If you have any concerns about these additives, making your own pure nut milk or coconut milk is easy to do.
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