Jess Parsons

Jess Parsons

Posted June 4, 2012

Published in Food

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Outsmart that Food Package

Read More: animal products, antibiotics, fatfree, glycemic index, glycemic response, lowfat, processed food, refined grains, salt, sugar, wholegrains

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Jeff Novick has it absolutely right. Never, ever, believe anything on the front of the package. Because they can say anything.

But even when they tell the truth, watch out. Learn a few packaging tricks on your way to better health

Fortified with...

If a product is bragging about how much extra nutritional power it's been fortified with, ask yourself this...

Do we fortify broccoli?

Real foods come with real nutrition. What has been stripped from the product in your hand so it now needs supplements?

  • Is it a refined grain starch, stripped of its fibre and germ?
  • Is it a fake fruit, made of artificial flavours and sweeteners?

You owe it to your health to figure it out.

Low fat

Hooray! Low fat foods are harder to find. But is it really?

Fat content is officially defined by weight, not calories. So your low fat "2% milk" is in fact 31% fat by the calorie value it supplies.

And even when low fat really is low fat - in a packaged food, that usually means high in sugar, salt, or both.

Low sugar, low GI, or sugarfree

With diabetes skyrocketing, sugar is a popular food demon. And the glycemic index (GI) factor is another hot ticket to consumer acceptance.

You don't want lots of sugar in your food, and some low-GI foods are very healthy. But one low-GI food is ice cream - which has lots of sugar, but also so much fat that it slows the glycemic impact.

Check any food you like for its GI rating.  But don't let that magic number override your common sense. Here are some real ways to reduce refined sugar.

And if sugarfree seems to good to be true, it probably is. Sugarfree products, aimed at diabetics and the overweight, depend on artificial sweeteners which are laboratory products of dubious origin.

Generally, the processed food industry depends on fat, sugar, and salt to sell product. If a product claims to be low in any one of those, check what you're trading up in.

No artificial flavours

Great! Who wants artificial flavours? But don't be distracted yet. Keep reading.

Does it say "No artificial colours"? How about "No artificial sweeteners"?  

The foods that brag about this sort of stuff will brag about all of it - if they can.

Great new taste (or extra delicious flavour)

"Hey look, we just added more sugar, salt, and/or fat!"

OK, so you know you need to go read the ingredients. Looking, looking, where are those pesky ingredients?

Can't see ingredients list

It's already unforgivable that the ingredients list is in 7 point type, all in one runon sentence. (See what a real food label should look like.)

But if it's also printed underneath a package seam so you can't see what might be there even if your eyes were good enough? They really really aren't into letting you know what's in that product.

I highly recommend you put it down and walk away. You'll be better off.

No ingredients list

Meat and milk packages are not required to have ingredients lists.

Only very recently have some ground meat products been required to have nutrition labels. Of course, nutrition labels do not report additive information.  And it's still guesswork what dose of cholesterol you're getting with a simple cut of meat.

But the ingredient is milk or meat, right? That's what the rules say - these are called "single-ingredient" products. But in the real world, let's look at two big complications:

  1. Food technologists - heard of meat glue and pink slime?  Ha, caught! I bet we know all their secrets now...
  2. So a farmer feeds GMO corn or antibiotics to the animals, and hey, presto, where'd it go? Now it's just "meat."  Or "milk." Magic.

    Antibiotic resistance is real. Why don't you need to know whether you're getting a dose in meat and milk?

Your only protection is knowing the source of the animals really well. A few of you could be that lucky.

Here's some industry-based information about what a meat package is allowed to say...  You'll learn some valuable stuff here about what code words indicate additives, but the biggest lesson is that they really really really aren't into letting you know what's in that product.


Sure, you should also consider the source when choosing plant foods; after all, they take in substances too. But:

1. Fruits and vegetables aren't so often sold in anonymous wrapped slices or mince
2. The nasties put on plants aren't specific to mammals like us
3. Animals get a double dose: any plant nasties from their food as well as anything the farmer adds

You are smarter than packaged foods - now go out and prove it!