WATCH YOUR MOUTH! getting to know your labels.

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food label

I was walking through my favorite local grocery store in LA today when I saw America’s favorite brunette wearing Gucci’s newest tee, made of white organic cotton and stamped with a beautiful, shiny, and red apple.  At that moment I was struck at the realities of today: 1) fashion has finally progressed (far) past the rhinestone skull phase (thank the sweet universe); and, 2) healthy living has become more then a style…it’s now a movement.  If you live in a city like I do, where cigarettes and chips have been traded in for yoga mats and kombucha, it’s practically impossible not to take part.  Because I sorta like this trend (I’m writing a food/nutrition blog for pete’s sake), and because I think people are TRYING to purchase things that will improve their health, I want to do my part to ensure this fad doesn’t fade as quickly as the parachute pant.

The food industry is one of the most profitable in the US, so its products are highly advertised.  Unfortunately, sometimes (actually, often) the “selling” of these goods can hide the truth, and influence us to buy some nutritionally inferior stuff. I’d like to offer 5 tips on what to watch out for on food labels that can help steer you in the right direction.

1.    LOOK FOR “WHOLE” BEFORE YOUR GRAIN.

People are well aware of the benefits to eating whole grains. But 9/10 of the ‘whole-wheat-looking’ products on the bread shelf are made with almost no whole wheat at all, so you can be sure people don’t realize they’re buying white bread that’s just been dyed brown. Wheat flour is exactly the same thing as white flour (and semolina and durum). TIP #1: Look at the ingredient list on the label, and ensure that the word ‘WHOLE’ exists before any wheat or grain in the product.

whole grains

2.    LOOK BEYOND SUPERFOOD. 

‘SUPERFOOD’ is a non-scientific marketing word designed to describe foods that are nutrient-rich and low in calories.  Most people attribute the word to products in this way, like in this month’s L.A. YOGA magazine article, where our very own Health-Ade kombucha was highlighted for its high probiotic content.  The problem is, sometimes the word is slapped on products that do not deserve the term (like the bag of chips I saw today…made with the tiniest amount of kale). “SuperFood” is not defined or regulated by any scientific entity, so describing a food as such on a label is no different than calling it ‘amazing.’ TIP #2: Look PAST the word ‘SuperFood’, and find out from the ingredients and nutrition facts label what you’re actually getting for its awesomeness.

LA yoga

3.    LOOK PAST ‘NATURAL’ AND NATURAL LOOKING.

Unfortunately, the word ‘natural’ or the rustic brown textured label behind it, doesn’t necessarily mean what you want it to. I know, I know—the hand-drawn picture of vibrant spring chickens frolicking in the fields is where you think your eggs come from. But, probably not. ‘Natural’ can be freely used in describing all kinds of foods with ‘not-so-natural’ ingredients, such as red dye, high-fructose corn-syrup, and carbonated water (also known in America as soda). TIP #3: If eating natural foods is important to you, eat more of what’s sold in its original state (eg, whole apples), and less of what’s processed (eg, usually in a box).  When you do eat something in a box, read the ingredients and decide whether YOU think the ingredients are natural enough for you.

all natural

4.    LOOK AT THE SERVING SIZE.

Of the 15 healthy-looking processed products I picked up, ALL of them had a serving size that was surprising to me. For example, in the case of the ‘healthy’ bread—the front label boasts 90 calories per serving, but only upon looking on the back do you see that’s for a mere ½ slice of bread. All of a sudden an intended healthy sandwich becomes calorically the same as a fast-food burger. Be especially careful with beverages.  TIP #4: Do the math yourself—a serving size to you is likely not what the marketer is peddling.

serving size

5.    DON’T RELY ON THE FDA ALONE.

As a food producer and nutritionist, I hear this all the time: Is this FDA-approved ? There is a fundamental problem with this question that reveals our society’s misunderstanding of the scope and responsibility of the FDA. The FDA does not, and never has, regulated a food product as a whole.  For example, to bring a prepackaged food to the shelf, one does not have to first gain approval from the FDA.  While it’s true this governmental organization regulates certain additives for use in food, there is no “certification” required as long as one uses approved or “generally recognized as safe” ingredients.  Food products are supposed to follow FDA’s rules of labeling, but the reality is that many labels on the shelf are less than accurate. Check out this CSPI article if you’re interested in learning more.  This isn’t to say the FDA isn’t trust-worthy; it’s more to say ‘just trust your gut.’  The more ‘whole’ the food, the more you know what’s in it. TIP #5: Eat less processed foods and don’t just swear by the nutrition label.

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Despite the fact that food labeling can be confusing and often misleading, our reality today is that PEOPLE are trying to get healthy and food producers are trying to meet this demand. This is the direction I know we all want to see! I encourage you to arm yourself with the facts whenever possible and trust your gut when you can’t.  If it tastes like food, smells like food, looks like food (and says it’s food on the nutrition label), it’s probably food. So BON APPETIT and LET’S KEEP GETTING HEALTHY! :)

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Daina Slekys, MS, MPH is a Nutritionist and co-founder of Health-Ade kombucha, in Los Angeles, CA.  Email Daina your health questions and she’ll be happy to help! daina@health-ade.com

Daina Slekys Health-Ade

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Health-Ade teamed up with acupuncturist and herbologist, Brigita Slekys, to create special Chinese herb-infused elixirs exclusively for Kreation Juicery.  These drinks combine Health-Ade kombucha and custom-built Chinese herbal tinctures to highlight different benefits inherent to kombucha.

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