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The “Think Outside the Box!” health series is brought to you the first three Thursdays of every month--with a new theme each month.

This Month's Theme: Figuring Out Food Labels

Get the most out of this educational series by interacting with the challenges and questions on Facebook and Twitter.

Last week we covered how common it is for sugar to be added to foods we purchase—and we often don’t realize it. I shared a list of “code names” for sugar so you can easily catch offenders. Did you catch any hidden sugar this week? Share on Facebook. 

Let’s continue our exploration of food labels by discussing other ingredients you may choose to avoid—or at least limit.

I haven’t always been a food-label junky. Ten or so years ago I didn’t pay attention to the ingredients in the food I ate. I may have glanced at the nutritional label to check out calories, but completely ignored the actual ingredient list. However, I have learned how important it is to know what ingredients are in the food that I am purchasing for my family, and I now look at every single ingredient before I purchase a product. That may sound overboard, but remember, the food we eat has the potential to be medicine—so we must choose the food we feed our family wisely.

Here are seven rules that I follow when I am reading ingredient labels and determining what to feed my family:

  1. No sugar! If there is any sugar listed in the ingredient label, I will rarely purchase it—unless of course we are having a special sweet treat. We definitely don’t need added sugar in our main meals and snacks. When you start to look, you will likely be amazed at how many food products contain added sugar, even foods that claim to be nutritious or “natural.” Review last week’s post to be reminded of the many names of sugar to avoid. 
  2. I also avoid artificial sweeteners in the ingredient list, which may be as bad or worse for our bodies than sugar.[1] Some common artificial sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose.
  3. Avoid the unpronounceable! Whole foods are typically easy to recognize and pronounce. Additives, dyes, and preservatives tend to have long names that are hard to pronounce and often unrecognizable. If it takes you a couple of seconds to sound out a word or you don’t recognize what it is, you may want to stay away from it.
  4. Limit/avoid safflower, sunflower, soybean, corn, cottonseed, and mixed vegetable oils. These oils contribute to oxidation and free radical damage, processes that lead to cell damage. Unfortunately, they continue to be the main choice for restaurants and fast food because they are cheap. These oils are also high in omega-6 fats, which can lead to chronic inflammation—a root cause of most chronic disease.1 I use coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil instead.
  5. Beware of processed grains. If your family eats grains, ensure the food you purchase contains the whole grain. I recommend that you reduce your consumption of foods made with flour, even whole-wheat flour (including bread, crackers and pretzels). Both whole-wheat flour and white flour cause spikes in blood sugar that can be even higher than plain table sugar. If you choose to eat grains, try to eat them in their whole form, where the grain is intact or simply cracked into a few large pieces, such as with brown rice, quinoa, millet, and bulgur wheat.
  6. No partially hydrogenated oils. Partially hydrogenated oils are a kind of trans-fat—formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats, such as margarine and shortening. Partially hydrogenated oils are used by food manufacturers to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavor stability of foods. These fats contribute to an increase in and oxidation of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease and inflammation in the arteries, and has recently been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. A good rule of thumb is to stick with the real deal, like real butter, as opposed to the imitation product.
  7. Focus on real food ingredients! I like to see that my ingredients are derived from real vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. It is important to me that I recognize the foods that are listed in the ingredients.

Now you know seven easy rules to reading food labels. It may take time to build confidence in knowing what you are reading, but forming the habit of reviewing every ingredient list is a very important first step. A good general rule is: the fewer ingredients the better.

Weekly challenge: Start to read ingredient labels before you purchase a food product. Follow the above rules to determine what healthy foods end up in your cart.

Let’s chat on social: Let’s help each other out. Share one of your healthy “go-tos” on Facebook.

[1] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/artificial-sweeteners-sugar-free-but-at-what-cost-201207165030