Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

How to Read a Label, Pt 1: Fiber and Sugars and GI, Oh My!

Here’s something that shouldn’t come as a shock to you (not least because it’s one of my favorite talking points): Processed foods are generally a bad idea.  Even when you think they’re a good idea, they probably aren’t.  You’re better off skipping the heavily-processed cheese-filled crackers and the store-bought cookies, and you’ll also benefit from making your own pasta sauce and soups.

In an ideal world, maybe we’d have all have the time and energy needed to be make our own bread and paint the Mona Lisa.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot going on.  Sometimes, you really want chili, and you forgot to plan ahead and soak the beans, or you just don’t have the 20 minutes you need to pressure-cook them.  So…canned beans.  Should it be done?

Look, it’s not the end of the world.  While it’s important to use factory-canned goods in moderation, thanks to the plastic linings in them which may leach endocrine-disrupting BPA, it’s almost inevitably going to happen sometimes.  Before I continue, though, let me submit the following:

1)  Eating healthily involves a lot of chopping and a fair bit of planning.  Other than that, it isn’t really a major time commitment, assuming you are fearless in the face of leftovers.  Make big batches when you do cook, and spend the rest of the week warming things up.  Then it’s just like a TV dinner, except it doesn’t make your arteries curl up or your pancreas cry itself to sleep at night.

2)  If you can find a weekend and some handy helpers, you can always try canning your own tomatoes, beans, fruit, or homemade soups.  Lots of resources exist on the subject, and you’d be able to stock some cupboards full of locally grown, home-prepped foods safely packed in glass.  Local foods with convenience!  W00t!

3)  By the by, growing or buying flats of tomatoes or bulk amounts of other produce at farmers’ markets and canning or freezing them yourself is almost inevitably healthier and cheaper for you.  If you are scared of canning, work your way up by drying and freezing produce until you feel ready to break out the big guns.  Some mason jars are also freezer-safe, so you can portion out items like soup or chili and save them for another time, thus avoiding leftover fatigue.  I’ll be posting more on that soon when I review Robin Wheeler’s Food Security for the Faint of Heart.

4)  Unfortunately, even many minimally processed foods contain things you would probably be better off not eating, or at least not eating so much of.  Think sodium, think sugars, think preservatives.

That said, if you are moving in baby steps toward being a locavore and eating only unprocessed, local foods, you’re doing great.  If you’re not quite ready to relinquish your favorite canned soup, breakfast cereal, or holiday crackers, I can dig that.  Progress doesn’t need to happen all at once.  Often, small changes over time are the best to make successful transitions stick.

If you’re hanging on to foodstuffs with labels for the time being, I want to invite you to take a small step: learn to be a smart label reader.  This How to Read a Label series will help you figure it out.  Today, we’re focusing on making sure we’re getting whole foods that won’t wreak havoc on our blood sugar or insulin levels.  Sadly, even a can of kidney beans or one of diced tomatoes isn’t always as straightforward as we’d like to believe.

Step One: Make sure you recognize all the ingredients on the label.  No hydrolyzed soy protein, for example (which is rich in MSG and almost always involves genetically modified soybeans), no sucralose or sorbitol or any such thing.  Shoot for canned tomatoes that list the ingredients as “tomatoes” or “tomatoes and salt.”  Aim for beans that list the ingredients as “beans” or “beans and salt.”  Choose bread that has five or fewer ingredients.  Keep it simple.

Step Two: Understand how to recognize whole-grain foods when choosing cereals, breads, or crackers.  “Wheat flour” and “enriched wheat flour” and “enriched flour” all boil down to one thing: white flour.  The only difference is that “enriched flour” has some of the specific nutrients lost when the germ and bran are removed added back in (specifically, iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid), but all U.S. millers are required to add these micronutrients back into refined flours.  Of course, as Marion Nestle points out in her book What to Eat, those added nutrients come in as vitamins purchased from pharmaceutical companies, and they ignore trace nutrients.   “Whole wheat flour” or “graham flour,” on the other hand, does mean it is 100% whole grain, according to the FDA…but be sure to check down the list to see if “enriched wheat flour” or “wheat flour” also make appearances on the list.  Labels can trip you up like that.  Pick whole grains (wheat or otherwise) whenever you have a choice.  You’ll get the trace nutrients, and you’ll get the heart-healthy, filling fiber.  Best of all, you’re not giving pharmaceutical companies a stake in your food supply.

Step Three: Watch for hidden sugars.  I am by no means a no-sugar person (been there, done that), but I do prefer to save my sugar for when it really shines: in a caramel cupcake, for example, or those amazing cinnamon rolls they sell down the street.  I don’t want covert sugars hiding my pasta sauce or my canned beans and messing with my energy levels and appetite.  Yet, if you look, you’ll find plenty of sugars tucked away in processed foods.  I think this is one of the most frustrating aspects of buying processed foods; even when you’re trying to be healthy (a la whole-grain crackers or canned beans), you wind up getting a load of sugars you weren’t planning on if you don’t read ingredient lists.  Those with blood sugar issues need to keep an especially close eye on this.  Often, sugars masquerade under other names.  Don’t let manufacturers pull one over on you!  Keep your eyes peeled for the following, which commonly hide in crackers, breads, and canned goods:

  • sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar
  • corn syrup, corn syrup solids
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • evaporated cane juice
  • honey, molasses, maple syrup
  • any ingredients ending in -ose: sucrose, fructose, glucose, lactose

As I mentioned, sugars are a-ok when you intend to get them.  Keep ‘em in your desserts if you can and you want to, but my vote is to give the ones hiding in your dinner the old heave ho.

And that’s it.  It looks like quite a bit of information, but this is the Simple Spoonful, after all.  So let’s get simple for a minute: Avoid processed foods.

If you can’t go that simple just yet, make sure you read labels, that the ingredients are recognizable as food, that whole grains are used when applicable, and that no sugars are hiding in them.

Not too bad, right?


2 Comments so far

  1. Canning now is perfect for the economic concerns…

    I love watching the smiles my family have when eating the foods I prepare…

  2. [...] I’ve pointed out before, processed and prepackaged foods usually have something in them you’d prefer not to be eating.  In the case of many non-dairy [...]

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