Stop reading labels and start reading ingredients

by Christina on January 29, 2011

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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