Reading Ingredient Labels 101
Monday, February 12, 2018
By Alexandra Marie
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About a year and a half ago, I began reading ingredient labels on food.  I had spent the previous year not feeling good or in any way healthy, and my body had been giving me lots of warning signs.  My skin frequently broke out, I constantly had headaches and stomachaches, I always felt tired with little energy, my skin was dull, my bowel movements were not regular (sorry TMI but just being real), and I suffered through lots of colds and flus. I chose to ignore these signs my body was giving me until I came to a point where I had enough and was ready to make a change. To read more about my journey leading up to this point, check out my blog post below.

In the past, healthy to me had meant reading the nutrition label on a food to determine its calorie and fat content. Obviously, that wasn’t working for me. So, fast forward to a year and a half ago when I committed to caring about what in the world I was putting in my body (and my family’s bodies). The first time I actually read through an entire ingredient label at the grocery store, I was shocked. The list was long, I couldn’t pronounce half of the ingredients, and I also had no clue what the majority of the ingredients were. Something about that just didn’t sit right with me. Was this even food? What was I really eating? I wanted the food I put in my body to provide as much nutrition as possible, and I didn’t want to consume foods that could be potentially detrimental to my health. Thus, began my research into these mysterious ingredients. I started looking up these words by searching the internet, reading books, and basically doing whatever I could do to educate myself. I found that a lot of them actually weren’t food at all but were instead chemicals, flavor enhancers, preservatives, fillers, thickeners, and artificial colors and sweeteners. Um, what!? Why had I never cared about this before? And why did it seem that every label I read had the same long list of weird ingredients? The more I researched and learned about ingredients in our food, the more concerned I got. I started taking notes and making lists of the ingredients I absolutely was no longer comfortable consuming or giving to my husband or (at the time) my one year old. The list grew and grew, and today I have a pretty good list that I keep in my phone to use when grocery shopping. I want to share that list with you, but I want to first explain that this list did not happen overnight. I did not wake up one day and cut every single one of these ingredients out of my diet. I added to the list as I learned. The very first ingredients I decided to avoid were high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors. I started looking at every single label for these ingredients, and let me tell you, they are everywhere! From there I added artificial sweeteners to the list. And eventually the list grew and grew.  I still, to this day, can’t always remember everything on my list, although I am getting better at reading the labels as I go. I still refer to my phone.  And I’m certainly not an ingredient expert! Every single trip I make to the store, I still read labels with unfamiliar ingredients. My role of thumb is this- if the list is long and has foreign ingredients that I can’t pronounce, I don’t buy it. And I have to admit something… Sometimes following the ingredient list is really hard. When I first started, I felt so limited in what I could and could not buy at the store. My eyes were really opened to how many foods on our grocery store shelves weren’t actually made of whole foods. But as I continued to read through every label, I found that clean foods do exist. You just have to really look for them.

 

 

Here are a few tips for reading labels:

 

  • Do your own research. Start looking up ingredients that you aren’t familiar with, and determine what you feel comfortable eating.

  • Start small and try to not get overwhelmed. Pick one or two ingredients to avoid the next time you go to the store. Each week, add one or two ingredients to the list.

  • Buy lots of produce, and do most of your shopping around the perimeter of the store. Most fruits, vegetables, eggs, and lean meats don’t even have an ingredient label. These are whole foods!

  • Limit your packaged/processed foods. Most of the ingredients I avoid are found in foods in those middle grocery store isles.

  • Don’t always trust the packaging. Foods can be labeled as “natural” or have the word “nature” in them to make you think you are buying a healthy food. However, many of these foods are still full of ingredients you don’t want to consume. There are also organic packaged foods that I don’t buy because of the ingredients. No matter what, look at the label!

  • Make what you can at home. I know this is hard for a lot people. Careers, children, families, and other responsibilities keep us all very, very busy.  Yes, I’m a stay at home mom, but cooking full meals three times a day with a needy toddler isn’t the easiest thing either. We can all give excuses as to why we can’t have a healthier diet, but at the end of the day, if it’s important to you, you’ll do it. You will make time. My advice for very busy families is to carve out some time on Sundays to meal prep for the week. The more readily available and healthy meals you have in your fridge, the less tempted you are to go through a drive through or order out.

  • The shorter the ingredient list, the better. I’ve found that usually the longer the list, the more chemicals and junk there is! Aim for small lists that are easy to pronounce and contain familiar ingredients.

  • When in doubt, just put it back on the shelf!

 

Without further ado, here is my AVOID list:

 

  • Soy lecithin- additive used as an emulsifier (basically, it makes food appear smoother. If you’re really interested, research how it’s made! Yum!)

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial colors- FD&C red 40, blue 1, yellow 5, and caramel color (and any other artificial color I read)

  • Artificial sweeteners- Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame K, and Sucralose

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)- preservatives

  • Sodium nitrites and nitrates- preservatives found in meats like bacon and hot dogs

  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)- flavor enhancer

  • Potassium bromate- used to increase the volume in bread (not to mention this ingredient is banned for use in foods in several other countries)

  • Brominated vegetable oil- used in some soft drinks and sports drinks as an emulsifier (also banned for use in food in other countries)

  • Sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate- preservatives

  • Sodium sulfite- preservative

  • Carrageenan- thickening agent

  • Canola oil, vegetable oil, and safflower oil- just researching how these oils are made was enough to turn me off to them!

  • Antibiotics and growth hormones- while these aren’t necessarily listed on an ingredient label, I avoid buying animals products that were given either one of these

 

If you want to know more about the details of the above ingredients, their safety in food, and what harm they can cause to the human body, do some research! I didn’t want to get into all the small details as to why I avoid them. There’s so much information about these ingredients that you can research on your own. I feel that whether or not you decide to consume these ingredients should be your decision. To be honest, the hardest part of the above list is the oils. I aim to only consume olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. SO many packaged foods use canola, vegetable, and safflower oil. But, I promise they can be avoided! And I also think it’s important to note that I’m not perfect and neither is my family. We stick to this list about 80 percent of the time. During the week, I prepare our meals from mostly whole foods, and just about every meal we make follows my ingredient list. But on the weekends, this mama wants a break from cooking. We love to enjoy meals at restaurants, and obviously it’s hard to control exactly what’s in your food when you are not preparing it. We also like to eat with friends and family, and part of being healthy to me is connecting with other people and appreciating their company without worrying about every single thing I am eating. And I don’t know about you, but my family likes to eat! We like pizza and hot wings and ice cream and donuts (Madden’s fav!). But all in moderation! And I am always learning. I’m sure this list may look a little longer in the future as I continue to educate myself. But for now, this is where I am.

 

Below, I put together some examples of ingredient labels. I include a label on a food I would not purchase compared to a cleaner label of the same food that I would (and do) purchase.

 

Peanut Butter: 

 

 

 

To me, peanut butter should have one or two ingredients in it- peanuts and possibly salt. That’s it! The first picture is the label for Jif creamy peanut butter which contains eight ingredients! Woah! The second picture is the label for Trader Joe’s organic creamy salted Valencia peanut butter. As you can see, it has two ingredients- peanuts and sea salt. I can easily read those ingredients and know exactly what they are.

 

Bread:

 

 

 

The first picture is the label from Maier’s premium Italian bread. Holy long list! What is all that stuff?? The second picture is the label from Ezekiel sprouted whole grain bread. Similar to the peanut butter, I know what each one of the ingredients are in the Ezekiel bread, and I don’t see any funky words.

 

So, as you can see, this is something that takes a little time and effort. But to me, it’s so worth it. My husband and I have never felt better, we have better immune systems, and my skin glows more than ever. We are all healthier, and for that I am happy and thankful! Our goal is to eat whole foods and avoid artificial foods as much as possible. I can’t tell you the last time I looked at the calorie count in a food. It’s just not what’s important to me anymore. Below is a before and after picture of me. The two pictures were taken almost exactly a year apart. The second picture shows what a year of reading ingredient labels and adding exercise to my routine did for me. I cut out the chemicals and crap in my food and ate foods that nourished my body. In that second picture, I felt like a totally different person than the first picture. I was down 20 pounds, more in-tune with my body, and healthier than ever.  As always, do what’s best for you. Do what works with your life, your schedule, or your family. I hope this is helpful no matter what your diet looks like today. Any change (even small) is progress! Whether this inspires you or not, I wish you nothing but health and happiness!

 

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5 Comments
Bob Maley - Alex, I guess old dogs can be taught new tricks. Crazy how sometimes we reach a destination by coincidence. I was watching Phil’s induction speech that you posted. Yes I did shead a few tears. His induction was well deserved and we’ll earned. Please tell him I said hello.
So after I finished the video I noticed that you had your blog. Very early this morning I read through everything you shared. Thank you very much for sharing! Thank you for all your hard work with organizing your thoughts and details. Starting today i’m going to make the necessary changes using your guidelines. I’ll let you know how things progress. Again thank you. My best to Phil and the kids. By the way you look wonderful! Bob
Sandy Schrack - Very informative. I'm going to try to be more aware of what ingredients of products I purchase. You are so right, it's just easier to grab and go! Good job!!
Alexandra Mann - Thanks, Aunt Sandy :)
Alexandra Mann - Cortney, so glad to hear this!!
Cortney - Yes! Knowledge is everything! We have been making these changes since 2013 in our family. It’s made a huge impact on my health as well. Love this list you’ve created!