Interpreting Food Labels

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Question: How do you go about interpreting food labels without going insane?!

Answer: Very carefully!

Actually if you have a good sense of humor, interpreting food labels can be amusing. (If I wasn't laughin' I'd be cryin'.) You can imagine a bunch of people sitting around a big table in a highly secret meeting discussing how best to write a label to be as deceptive as possible as to what is really in their food product.

I was musing about this as I was looking at a quart of something called "Half and Half." "Half and half what?" I'm assuming, like most folks, that it's half cream and half milk. It certainly looks just like it could be half cream and half milk. In fact it is half skim milk, which has no fat. But cream?, well I think most people define cream as the fat from milk. So "no fat cream" is an oxymoron.

“So what!” say the boys and girls around the big table in the secret meeting room , “We’re not deceiving anyone. We didn’t say it was “cream” anywhere on the label,..." (implying that it’s your fault if the term “half and half” is commonly used these days to mean half cream and half milk.) " could mean half anything and half anything else.” They’ve decided that words in the English language are fixed in meaning and customary usage doesn’t count. And so what if the carton looks the same as one that actually has cream in it.

half and half ingred

Let's look at Cracker Barrel’s 100% Natural Syrup. Now here in New England, when we think of natural syrup, we think of maple syrup. And I wager that most people in North America do too. Well this natural syrup is all natural but only 55% is maple syrup, the other 45% is cane syrup. Nothing really wrong with that, it just seems a little deceptive and those folks around the table probably spent hours -- days -- months maybe figuring it all out.

After all the “maple syrup” most of us were raised on was actually corn syrup with a little bit of maple flavoring -- maybe 10%?! So 55% is at least a step in the right direction. Anyhoo, my Darlings, we must read labels!!! Very carefully.

These people are so brainwashed by their sense of importance that they don’t really mean us harm. They just don’t understand what’s really going on outside the four walls of that secret meeting room. And they don't think we will ever read or be worried about interpreting food labels

People are wising up to them. Reading labels is important. They put poisons in your food.

For FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) guidelines for interpreting food labels:

I suggest surfing all around this website. There is tons of information about what is being done and what is not being done to get the huge food processing company’s to be honest about what they put in our food.

Reading ingredients lists on the label is a different matter. The easiest thing to remember is that the ingredients are listed in order -- the first one being the largest percentage and the last one the lowest. Also there are plenty of mystery words in ingredient labels. Natural flavors can be anything, including MSG (monosodium glutamate)

On the other hand here’s a simpler solution:

To paraphrase Michael Pollan* -- If the ingredients list has words in it that you don’t understand, the stuff is probably not good for you.

So follow his advice and “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” You can’t go wrong there.

Ken Shuey 2009

*Reference: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food, Get best price on this and other books here:

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