Deciphering food labels

Hidden Ingredients and What They Mean: Deciphering Food labels and Ingredients Lists 

When at the grocery store, are you overwhelmed by the amount of products that claim to be healthy? We all know the obvious ones to steer clear of cookies, cake, candy and so on. But what about the products marketed to be “good” for us. How do you decipher between marketing schemes and actual healthy foods? Learning how to read the ingredient list, what it ACTUALLY means and properly relating that to the nutrition facts label will help immensely.  

First, don’t fall prey to front of package marketing! Many manufactures use the front of the packaging for marketing terms to lure the consumer. Words and phrases such as “All Natural,” “Heart Healthy,” “Farm Fresh,” “Gluten Free,” “Organic,” “Naturally Sweetened,” “No added Sugar” and many more.  

What should you be looking for when reading a food label? Let’s start with the ingredient list. First, look for products with the fewest amount of ingredients and no more than 5 ingredients listed. Make sure they are actual food items, which are typically items you can pronounce. For this example, let’s look at almond milk. Almond milk has been all the craze lately but it’s not all created equal. We’ll break it down here to see the difference. Let’s compare Unsweetened Original Almond Breeze, Unsweetened Silk Almond Milk and Elmhurst Unsweetened Milked Almonds. At first glance, you may notice Almond Breeze has the most ingredients, 11. Silk has slightly less, 7 or so that’s what it looks like. Silk’s packaging is confusing, they listed vitamins and minerals separate from the ingredients (another marketing tactic). These vitamins and minerals are mostly synthetic and are not absorbed by the body the same as real vitamins and minerals found in whole foods. Now look at Elmhurst with only 2 ingredients, water and almonds. Isn’t that all that you would expect to be in your almond milk? So why do the other brands have other ingredients and what are they? Unfortunately, the other ingredients are mostly fillers and thickeners to make up for the fact that these brands use less almonds to cut down on cost. We’ll break that down next, but for now let’s talk about what these ingredients actually are.  

Most almond milks are going to have water and almonds as their first ingredients, as they should. Calcium carbonate is frequently used as an antacid and can cause a constipating effect. Sea salt, yes increasing salts is a great way to get minerals, however the sea salt that most manufacturers use is no better than white table salt, which is highly processed and stripped of its natural minerals. Potassium citrate is a food additive used to balance acidity and reach the desired consistency, basically stop the almond milk from separating. Potassium citrate is used to treat kidney stones and has a whole list of side effects including, but not limited to numbness, swelling or rapid weight gain, muscle cramps, rapid heart rate, confusion, mood changes, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Sunflower lecithin is a highly processed by product made from the gum of a sunflower. It is used as an emulsifier to help keep the oil from the almonds from separating from the water. Gellan gum is used as a thickener, created when the bacteria Sphingomonas elodea ferment glucose or other carbon sources such as corn syrup, lactose, whey protein, or soybean extracts. Gums are mostly indigestible and can cause digestive upset. Natural Flavors means synthetic solvents, preservatives, emulsifiers, carriers and other additives to a flavor that qualifies as “natural” under current laxed regulations, which are usually anything but natural. Palmitate is a scientific term for the chemical compounds of palmitic acid; it is one of the major components of palm oil. Vitamin A palmitate is a favored ingredient in many beauty products for its anti-aging effects but can also be found in many household & food items, including milk alternatives. Vitamin A palmitate comes with its own list of side effects such as negative skin reactions, poor liver health and cancer, to name a few. Vitamin D2 is a synthetic vitamin and is not metabolized by the liver the same as vitamin D3 (which is the vitamin D naturally occurring from the sun and animals). A single dose of vitamin D3 is twice as effective as a single dose of D2. D-alpha-tocopherol is another synthetic vitamin, vitamin E, and is only half as active in the body as the real thing.  

Let’s now look at Unsweetened Silk Almond Milk. Many of the ingredients are the same as Almond Breeze. We’ll break down the new ones listed here. Locust bean gum is a vegetable gum extracted from the seeds of the carob tree. It’s used as a thickener and can ferment bacteria in the gut. Calcium  carbonate is known to reduce diversity in gut bacteria and can lead to gut dysbiosis (imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut). Vitamin E acetate is synthetic vitamin E. Zinc gluconate is a synthetic form of zinc and of the different forms has the least amount of elemental zinc. Riboflavin (b2) is another synthetic vitamin. Synthetic B2 does not stay in our bloodstream for long periods, like its natural form.       

Lastly, Elmhurst Unsweetened Milked Almonds is a prime example of the ingredient list you should be aiming for when looking at products. It has only 2 ingredients and both are natural food sources, filtered water and almonds. No additives, fillers, preservatives or synthetic vitamins or minerals. You can also see that this milk uses more almonds based on the fat content. Elmhurst’s milk has 11g of total fat, while Silk and Almond Breeze both only have 2.5g. This is because Silk and Almond Breeze are mostly fillers, while Elmhurst is just water and almonds, so the fat is coming from the almonds.  

Macros have also become all the rage these days. It’s easy to get focused on the numbers, but there is so much more than just protein, fat and carbs on nutrition labels. The most important part of the label is the ingredient list. Aim for whole, natural sources without filler, preservatives and synthetics. 

Coach Adrienne


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