The study of food labels has been a small hobby of mine for 25 years now. And I am still tricked from time to time. It’s like a gut punch every time it happens. Years ago it happened just because I didn’t know what I was reading. Now it usually happens because I’m not paying close enough attention. Or the labeling laws changed. The point is it still happens. After 25 years.
It’s become sufficiently discouraging to me that I am working hard to vastly reduce the labels in my life by buying local whatever I can and reducing my use of the rest.
I’m not alone in this. We are all tricked from time to time. Sometimes we trick ourselves, with a little help from the products marketing. We should know better, but we don’t. We can’t find or afford what we truly need, so we accept that things are basically ok. I did this recently myself. It went on for years. When I fully realized the error I was in a sort of shock, really. Then I picked up the pieces of my shattered ego and went about looking for a replacement. I’ll tell you all about it in just a bit :-).
Misreading and misunderstanding labels
Reading labels is tricky. That’s because tricksters write labels ;-). So we have to learn how to read them not only at face value but read them between the lines. What are the manufacturers required by law to state? What are they permitted to leave out? What does it mean when the bold labels on the front don’t match up with the tiny print label on the back? For that matter what exactly do the bold labels on front really mean in legal terms? And then on top of all this, the laws change and different things are required to be stated and more things are allowed to be left out!
Decoding labels well takes some study and practice. You also need to be up to day on food news and labeling laws to do a really bang-up job. I highly recommend visiting Kristen at Food Renegade for her excellent series on decoding food labels. I was tricked myself by one of the items she decodes: “Better than Bouillon”. I’ll share my tale of woe with you. This isn’t the worst case where I’ve misunderstood a label, but it is a clear cut case where I was tricked by the label and not myself :-).
Before I began to follow the Weston Price Foundation’s dietary guidelines in earnest I was still very interested in food and nutrition. My friends and family had regarded me as a health food nut for years ;-). I knew a little bit about WPF. And I knew to avoid MSG. Matter of fact many years ago I was highly reactive to it and so and completely eliminated it from my pantry. I did however buy canned broth. Not tons of it but occasionally. Then I started making lots of soups and needed more broth. I didn’t want to buy the cans anymore and stumbled upon this little jar at Whole Foods. I thought it was an answer to a prayer! Food Renegade quotes the label as saying:
Better Than Bouillon concentrated bases are made from meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables. This gives them a richer, more robust flavor than ordinary bouillons. No added MSG, low or no fat, lower sodium: Better Than Bouillon bases have 1/3 less salt than ordinary bouillons.
At this point I think I must have been in a happy coma, congratulating myself on my brilliant shopping skills. I glanced at the tiny print ingredients and not feeling faint reading it, I thought; Not perfect, but pretty clean. This will do. My eyes skimmed right past the corn syrup solids and hydrolyzed soy protein since they were unfamiliar ways of stating that this product is loaded with high fructose corn syrup and MSG! And I wanted so badly to believe in my shortcut. I bought some, liked it and continued to buy more and more and eat more and more soups with this as the base. Well, it took a few months but my MSG sensitivity came back with a vengeance. I began the task of examining my diet to see where things went off the rails. At first I could find nothing. After a while my attention was called to that tiny label and I ran a few searches and learned what I was truly feeding everyone. I was shocked, mad at Whole Foods, mad at myself, mad at the manufacturer. Then I started making my own broth, never again to fall for this particular trick.
We will all make mistakes while learning to read labels and even long after we think we’ve acquired the skills and knowledge to read them well. If this happens to you be kind to yourself. It’ll happen to us all sooner or later. And that’s ok :-).
A case of tricking myself
It’s far worse that I was tricking myself at the same time with another food. It was organic and the best product available to me, or so I thought. Every now and then a nagging sense that I was repressing awareness of something truly important would surface but I’d just shove it back down again. It seemed the only realistic choice so I just didn’t want to look too deeply at it. What would I do without my organic ultra-pasteurized heavy whipping cream? I was aware it was ultra pasteurized but didn’t know much about what that meant. I knew Sally Fallon stated pretty flatly to avoid ultra pasteurized dairy, but I reasoned how much worse could it be than simple pasteurized milk? And this went on for several years. I never tried to educate myself on the differences in pasteurization.
Then kinda by accident I came to understand fully what ultra pasteurized milk was in terms I could digest. It has a shelf life of months. Six to nine months. In Europe they don’t bother to refrigerate it at all. Here in America it’s in the refrigerated section only because the sight of room temperature milk doesn’t get people reaching for their wallets! Emotionally this struck a chord with me, making me realize this is a very unnatural product. It became associated with hydrogenated oil and twinkies in my mind.
This kind of label problem is totally psychological. Food Renegade alludes to it when she says “sometimes we self-delude”. I was definitely doing that, much to my later regret. If you think this might be an issue for you, take it easy on yourself. Take a deep breath and grab that item you just didn’t want to know more about … you love it so! Look up the ingredients just to be sure. If it’s ok you’ll have piece of mind. If not, you are now armed with the knowledge you need to make better choices next time.
Beyond reading labels
Reading your food labels seriously and cautiously will take you down the path. But only so far. The next hurdle in our way is the chance that any given product you’re looking at was made outside the US. Which means you know little or nothing about the labeling and food inspection laws of the country of origin. Or you might not have any clue about the country of origin. About 16% of all food in the US is imported, much of it from China. We’ve all heard and read about the troubles with adulterated food products in China. And of course, it’s not just China with these problems. They occur worldwide. That means they also occur here in the US. Food adulteration is a big subject all by itself so I won’t tackle it here. For now, just keep it in mind and try to keep up on food news as best you can. That should point out the most common cases so you can sidestep any problems.
While reading labels is fraught with drama …
Not reading them creates even more trouble in the long run. So dive in, the water’s fine! And we’re all in here with you, just trying to make sense of it all! Have you ever been tricked by a food label?
Links to learn more about reading labels
- Decoding Labels – Food Renegade
- Get the Weston a Price shopping guide – The Healthy Home Economist talks about how this little booklet can help you get started making good choices at the store.
- Real Food 101 Label Reading – a brief review of some things you’ll find on labels.
- A few good solid basic label rules – by Nourish MD
Links to learn more about food adulteration
- A decade of dangerous food imports from China – Food and Water Watch
- Over half of Chinas food processing facilities fail inspection – Mrs Dull’s Nourished Kitchen
- Widespread adulteration of commercial honey – Granny’s Vital Vittles