Deciphering Food Labels

Deciphering Food Labels

Are your favorite foods secretly sabotaging your diet? VN helps you to get smart at the supermarket.


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With our jam-packed schedules and supermarket shelves filled with a cornucopia of vegetarian convenience foods, it’s often easy to choose the quick-prep, prepackaged route for easy eating. While whole foods are undoubtedly full of nutrients, faster-food alternatives can’t be that bad, right? Unfortunately, many of these items are full of any combination of processed flour, sugar, salt and oil—the very culprits that lead to obesity and ill health in mainstream omnivores. Commonly used labels like “organic,” “trans-fat free,” and “all-natural” invite consumers to indulge, providing a safety blanket of health-conscious endorsements. Even the most educated consumers can fall prey to masterful marketing. While some products may, in fact, be healthy, many labels can be misleading. Read on for VegNews’ guide to some of the most commonly used packaging language.

“No Trans Fat”
Trans fats are definitely something to avoid. Over the years, consumption of trans-fatty acids has been linked with diabetes, coronary heart disease, and sudden cardiac death. Looking for a “no trans fat” label on your food is a step in the right direction. But beware—the FDA allows products to contain half a gram of trans fat and still be labeled “zero.” The key is in the ingredients list: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is a red flag. In addition, “no trans fat” does not mean that the product is free of artery-clogging saturated fats, nor does it mean that the product is low-fat.

“Fruit Sweetened”
When we think of fruit, we think of a healthy part of our daily diets, and rightly so. So if a product is sweetened with fruit sugars, it’s logical to conclude that the product is also a much healthier alternative to one sweetened any other way. However, as far as the human body is concerned, sugar is sugar is sugar, no matter what the source. There really is no “healthy” sugar, and this includes “natural” sweeteners. As a general rule, try to limit foods with added sugars.

“100 Percent Organic”
Organic products have been grown in accordance with organic standards—without the use of irradiation, genetic modification, pesticides, sewage sludge, or artificial fertilizers. This is great news for your health; eating organic products will certainly keep you from consuming hidden food dangers. Remember, though, that organic foods can still be fried, sugary, and full of ingredients that give little nutritional bang for their caloric buck.

“All Natural”
The FDA held a 1970 proceeding to define the then-blossoming label “natural,” but has yet to regulate the term nearly 40 years later. Without regulation, the updated “all natural” term can be slapped on just about any product on supermarket shelves and still contain large amounts of decidedly unnatural ingredients.

What does all this mean for those who want to have their vegan cake and eat it, too? Should we just give up on our beloved meat analogs, crackers, and cookies? Absolutely not. Just read labels and make sure that you understand all of the ingredients in your food. This way, you can make informed decisions on what you’re consuming. Monitor portion sizes, eat plenty of whole foods, and make sure you get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. If you’re doing all this, you can safely include your favorite foods into your diet, in moderation. Because let’s face it—we could all use a cookie now and then.

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