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Stop reading labels and start reading ingredients

All week I’ve been seeing stories about Walmart-style food reform and food manufacturers’ self-serving nutrition labels, about fake meat, fake blueberries and fake maple syrup. Stories about all the ways the food industry tricks us, and all the ways people get mad about the food industry tricking us.

So here’s a thought: Let’s stop playing the game. Ignore the labels. Don’t look at numbers. Don’t believe the box or the commercial or the nice kid at the counter. Just… read the ingredients.

Numbers, schmumbers

When we talk to our children about food, we don’t say, “Here, sweetie, eat these 270 calories and 6 grams of protein with 16% of your daily fiber requirement.” No, it’s just, “Here, try this granola.” Or this apple or egg salad or cookie. We talk about the food, the taste, the fact that the granola has cashews and locally grown oats and real maple syrup. Or that the eggs came from a farmer at the market. The apple, too. And that the cookie is so damn good because it’s made from real food, not industrial oils or refined sugars. (I’m talking to you, Girl Scouts.)

When we cook together, we measure and chop and make a mess. (And I, at least, try to keep my Type A in check.) We don’t calculate daily nutrient values or worry whether recipes conform to the archaic and lobbyist-driven USDA food pyramid. We don’t confuse “food” for food, or accept that a box o’ fortified nutrients is a substitute for the real thing.

The food industry, though, wants us to do exactly that. It wants us to think in terms of nutritionism, which puts the focus on percentages and components instead of straight-up ingredients. If the package touts calcium or Vitamin C or nothing-short-of-a-miracle health claims, we’re supposed to forget the ingredients list the size of a brick (and about as healthful, too). Or be so confused that we pick the prettiest box and call it a day.

And it works. Lots of smart, thinking people don’t read ingredients. Which is how food manufacturers get away with healthy-labeling claims like the outrageous “Better for You” program that greenlights more than 200 barely edibles including Chocolate Lucky Charms and Kid Cuisine Carnival Corn Dog. And which is why food marketing to children has become so egregious. (Remember the McEducation nutrition workshops?) If we didn’t buy into it, they wouldn’t do it.

So let’s not. Sure, it’s tedious to read ingredients. Ingredient-speak can seem indecipherable, and restaurant ingredients aren’t obvious unless you ask or check websites. But it’s not rocket science. If you could conceivably use an ingredient in your own kitchen — and it came from nature, not a lab — then, for the most part, you’re good.

Once you do start reading, brace for epiphanies of epic proportions. No joke. We’re talking eye-opening, life-changing stuff. (Like the insane prevalence of artificial colors, which we’ve been discussing here.)

Two resources that help break it down bite-size:

“Food Rules,” Michael Pollan’s condensed version of “In Defense of Food,” is a short, clear guide to making wise food choices. Pollan lists 64 “rules” (don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk… sweeten and salt your food yourself… avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce). But there’s nothing absolute or militant here. It’s all about using good sense.

Fooducate’s free iPhone app scans UPC codes to assess products with an algorithm that favors real ingredients, actual (vs. fortified) nutrients and minimal processing. I just downloaded the app and haven’t tried it yet, but it looks promising.

Another round of labeling madness hits Monday, when the USDA is set to release updated dietary guidelines, but I won’t be batting an eye. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the food pyramid or front-of-package labels or the “nutrition facts” panel. If there’s a number attached to it, ignore it. Read the words, understand the ingredients, eat real food. You with me?

Update on February 1: Jenna Pepper over at Food with Kid Appeal has a good assessment today of why the new USDA dietary guidelines once again miss the big picture. (Scroll down to the section titled “My reaction to the USDA dietary guidelines.”) Jenna explains why “reducing factory food is a better dietary guideline than reducing calorie consumption.” (Sing it!) That includes factory-made low-fat milk, because, as she correctly points out: “Last time I checked, milk coming out of a cow contains fat; it takes a factory to remove it and add it back in in varying percentages.”  

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays.

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through an affiliate link, your cost will be the same, but I will receive a small commission to help fund the work of writing this blog. Please know that I link only to products I value and support. Thank you!

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{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Bethesda Locavore January 29, 2011, 5:01 pm

    Yes, yes, yes. Totally with you. In my household, I’m attempting to shift our diet to one that originates directly from the farm/farmers’ market as much as possible. Not *purely* from the farmers’ market because I don’t have that kind of free time and am still learning how to cook, but I suppose my general philosophy is that I’d rather eat food that comes straight from either a farm or a farm kitchen – like preserves, homemade pasta, stuff like that. And trying to avoid the stuff that was produced in a factory. For a zillion reasons – a factory-based diet just seems so wrong – and leads to the kind of insanity you’ve just described.

  • jenna @ Kid Appeal January 29, 2011, 5:18 pm

    this is great advice for the literate. The truth is not on the front of the box (shame on food mfgs), but it is to a large extent in the ingredient list. great piece.

  • Melodie January 30, 2011, 1:46 am

    It is rather a no-brainer isn’t it? I just squint my eyes against all the blaring numbers on the front of the box and then open them again when I see the ingredients! :D Or, more truthfully I just try to stay out of the aisles with the boxes all together!

  • TheFeministBreeder January 30, 2011, 3:16 am

    Okay, I just downloaded that fooducate app, and spent 15 minutes in my kitchen scanning everything I could find. THAT IS THE COOLEST APP EVER!!!!! and I’m hugely embarrassed to say that most of the boxes in my cupboards got C and D ratings. I can’t wait to take this app shopping with me.

  • Kristia@Family Balance Sheet January 30, 2011, 7:25 am

    I’m with you. Great post.

    Just yesterday, my husband and I were coming home from the gym. I had a Luna bar with me and I gave half to my husband. I started reading the front of the wrapper, telling him about the protein and fiber and he said to me, “I don’t care about that. What are the ingredients and can you even pronounce them?”

    I get it and now I am going to go make my own “Luna” bars.

  • Sarah January 30, 2011, 11:13 am

    Hi. I’m totally with you.

  • Swan January 30, 2011, 7:45 pm

    Thank you for this. It’s not as complicated as we make it out to be with our numbers & nutritionalism. Eat real food. Read the ingredients. What a relief!

  • Lisa Suriano January 31, 2011, 12:06 am

    What a great post! You are right on with this – – – I will be repeating this idea to others.

  • Bri January 31, 2011, 11:37 am

    Right on! I posted about that “Better For You” madness too — it’s absolutely counter-intuitive to the way we actually think and eat, yet somehow, we’ve been fooled into believing that we aren’t smart enough to feed our kids and ourselves without some “scientific” numbers to quantify our choices. In some ways, I’m cautiously optimistic that things like ANDI scores — which I tend to ignore anyway, but which give those oh-so-coveted numbers to REAL foods that don’t have the consumerist advantage of nutrition labeling — may start to enter the American consciousness and raise the cache of actual foods. Yes, I’m probably living in a dream world.

  • Sarah Perry January 31, 2011, 2:03 pm

    I am trying on this quest for my family as well. If it has something I cannot pronounce or define, I am not feeding it to my kids (or myself)

  • Alyssa January 31, 2011, 2:31 pm

    I always ignore the labels and go straight to reading the ingredients. What annoys me is that it’s hard to do this when you’re grocery shopping with a busy two year-old. Any tricks for that one, LOL?

    • Christina January 31, 2011, 8:31 pm

      Alyssa, when my daughter was a toddler, I tried to keep her entertained while we shopped (books, coloring, etc.), and I’m also a fast reader, thankfully. But I saved intensive label-reading for solo trips. Plus I frequently researched and checked ingredients online (still do). It takes a lot of time for a little while, but soon it becomes second nature.

      We also buy almost exclusively organic, in part because that eliminates most of the nasty stuff right off the bat. I still read ingredients looking for things like processed soy and sugar, but at least I know I won’t find food dyes or high-fructose corn syrup.

  • Katie @ Wellness Mama January 31, 2011, 3:59 pm

    I’m with you all the way. I often recommend shopping only the outside of the grocery store (meat, produce, etc) and avoiding the inside aisles as this helps cut down on processed foods a lot. Farmers markets and CSAs are great also, but in the end it has to stem from a conscious decision to actively decide what we will allow into our bodies and what we won’t.

  • Dorothy January 31, 2011, 6:52 pm

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • Tina February 9, 2011, 9:52 pm

    Nutrition facts provided in the label of any products mention only names and figures to trick the consumers. I agree to read ingredients instead of labels.

  • Sanura @ MyLifeRunsOnFood.com March 1, 2011, 1:31 pm

    Saw your link on Fooducate’s FaceBook page. The terrible fact is I don’t know how to read numbers, such as calories, fat, and sodium. However, I read ingredients. If it has too many artificial flavorings and chemicals, it’s not a good purchase.

  • Rachel March 22, 2011, 11:04 am

    We live the same way! My husband is a chiropractor and he actually does a workshop on the toxic top ten. People just don’t know, they think if they sell it at the grocery store it has to be safe. We tell people forget the fat %, the calories, etc., if you would read the INGREDIENTS than all the other stuff won’t matter. Anyways, fat is good for you & your brain (if it’s a healthy fat) Awesome blog!

  • Wendy McCallum October 10, 2012, 8:03 am

    Hallelujah sister! Couldn’t have said it better myself! :)

  • Dona April 10, 2013, 6:58 am

    Thanks for this post! For my son’s health we have been on a no sugar no processed anything diet and I have never felt better in my life! After two weeks of eating things grown not boxed I have dropped the puffy look and my face is thin and people have been asking what “diet” I am on and I said a “food” diet…the thought of eating from a fast food chain makes my stomach turn :p If you look at other cultures (that don’t have grocery stores they shop in markets) the general population does not look like puff balls or raise MILLIONS of dollars every year for cancer…you are what you eat?!?

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