Easy Change #3: Start Reading Ingredient Labels

This is part 3 of my Easy Changes series. Check out previous posts, and let me know what changes you would like to make so I can help you do it!

As a dance teacher I am constantly telling my students that in order to improve their dancing, they need to develop body awareness so that can know what their bodies are doing in the first place. It's pretty hard to hold your arms in a slightly different way if you don't know what you're doing with your arms now.

It's the same way with food. If you don't know what you're eating now, then how will you know what to change? You can easily say, "I had cereal for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and a hamburger and fries for dinner," but you might not be aware of what those foods are made up of.

The first step is reading the ingredients.

A huge part of learning to eat real foods for our family has been not buying as many processed foods: cereal, snacks, store-bought bread, condiments, or anything with a lot of added ingredients. I try to make as much from scratch as I can...which might be overwhelming to some of you! Keep in mind that it took me a few years to get to that point! So instead of telling you "stop buying all processed foods and make everything from scratch," I'm telling you, "Read the labels of the foods you already buy and think about if there might be a better option."

That's it. Just read them. Find out what is in your food! If you come across an ingredient that you can't identify (or pronounce!), look it up and find out what it is. If you find an ingredient that you are pretty sure is best to avoid, try to find a product that doesn't contain that ingredient.

If after doing so, you feel inclined to try your hand at homemade crackers or broth or mayonnaise, or substituting lunch meat with homemade tuna or chicken salad, by all means, go for it! (And if you need help doing so, let me know!) But no pressure. If it's stressing you out, take a step back. Any change is better than no change, and it all starts with an awareness of what you're eating.

What should you be looking for when reading these labels? Well first let's clarify. I'm not talking about reading the part of the label where it says how many calories and grams of sugar and fat. Granted, sometimes that's helpful (like if you're trying to choose the product with the least sugar), but focusing too much on that part, and not enough on the actual ingredients, can be misleading. If you are a calorie counter and choose a product based on number of calories, you might be missing the fact that the lower number of calories is due to artificial sweeteners, which are definitely on my list of ingredients to avoid! And if you choose the product based on fewest number of fat grams, well, then, we need to have a conversation about fat. It's the TYPE of fat that is important, and you need plenty of it to thrive! (Did you know your brain is made of mostly fat?)

So, don't dwell on those details. Instead, read the ingredients. There are all kind of things that I recommend you steer clear of, but I'm gonna start with the top three.

1. Partially hydrogenated oils. These "trans fats" lurk in your peanut butter, crackers, cakes, doughnuts, frosting, soups, tortillas, and more. They are vegetable oils (rancid and deodorized, to begin with) that have been chemically re-processed to be more shelf stable and solid at room temperature. Though saturated fats have gotten a bad rap in recent decades, the studies used to "prove" that saturated fats cause heart disease actually didn't differentiate between hydrogenated oils and saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil. Minor details (not!). Hydrogenated oils are the number one fat to avoid! They also hide under the name "shortening." Also note: just because something says "zero grams trans fat" does not mean it doesn't contain any. If a product contains less than 0.5 grams per serving they can write zero, but it's not true! (Want to learn more about fats? watch a very amusing documentary called "FatHead" for free on hulu.com!)

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup. AKA how to fill the entire population up with sugar on the cheap. The biggest culprit here is pop (or is it soda? or soda pop? or coke?), but this is also found in everything from bread to yogurt to hummus to ketchup. A very complicated process of chemical reactions has to take place to give you HFCS, which sets off warning bells for me right away. This stuff does not exist in nature (much like hydrogenated oils, above), so that makes me think maybe we weren't made to eat it. It's made from genetically modified corn and enzymes (also scary). Your liver doesn't like all that fructose, and HFCS depletes your body of nutrients and can cause weight gain. Bad news, friends. :(

This next one is a little more overwhelming, so if you're not ready for step three, just stick to one and two, and come back to this one later!

3. Excitotoxins. Excitotoxins are substances that make your brain say "more, more, more!" but they also cause a whole gamut of health problems, such as holes in the lobes of your brain (according to a former customer of my dad's who worked for Nutrisweet - this guy wouldn't touch the stuff), migraines (ever get a headache after eating chinese food?), learning disabilities, and hormonal imbalances. (See this article and the corresponding book for more info.) The three excitotoxins to look out for are MSG, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and aspartame. The trouble is, they aren't always labeled. According to the previously cited article, MSG only needs to be labeled if it's 100% MSG, but if a food contains spice mixture that includes MSG plus other ingredients, it does not need to be labeled. Stinky! So, look out for these ingredients that very likely also contain MSG:

sodium caseinate, calcium caseinate, yeast extract, textured protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed flour, malt extract, malt flavoring, bouillon, broth, stock, "flavoring," "natural flavoring," "seasoning," "spices," carrageenan, enzymes, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate and whey protein concentrate. (source)

:( The seasoning and spices are what get me the most. And of course it's easy to think that natural flavoring is, well, natural. (Did you see any of those on my ketchup label in the photo up there? Oops!)

Sad day, huh? But cheer up! Go make your family a delicious home cooked meal and say to yourself, "I'm doing the best I can!"

I remember in college when I first learned that high fructose corn syrup was bad news. I had just bought a couple big boxes of Rice Crispies on sale at Meijer, buy one, get one free. I tossed them right into the trash. I was pretty hard core about it.

I'm not sure I would do the same thing today. Food is still food, and it fills up our bellies and keeps us from starving. Wasted food is not cool, but I guess what's even more uncool is food that shouldn't exist in the first place. So you'll have to decide for yourself whether you toss out food you've already bought, or simply eat it up and try to make a better choice next time.

Happy label reading! Leave comments with your questions about ingredients, and let me know if you need advice for finding healthier alternatives!

This post is part of Monday Mania and Real Food Wednesday.


  1. I LOVE this post! Thanks for taking the to go through and list out many of the top things that are bad in processed food. I think I may link to this post in the future!
    I found you over at Real Food Wed., you should stop by and say hello!
    Jennie@ Pure Homemaking

  2. Thanks for visiting Jennie! I'd love for you to link my post. :)