If you like to run into the grocery, grab your favorite items, head straight for the check-out, and dash out of the store, you may hate this post. But I can guarantee that if you slow down and read labels of the packaged food you buy, you’ll be surprised.
Right now those of you who are “natural foods” shoppers are rolling your eyes, with a “not me” feeling of superiority. Not so fast. My friend Elizabeth, whose experience sparked this post, is a careful, natural foods shopper. She is on a strict diet, watching what she buys and eats. In fact, I kid her mercilessly about her favorite meal – quinoa, drizzled with olive oil and lightly sprinkled with sea salt. Yet she too was fooled into buying something that had an ingredient that she doesn’t eat.
Food labels are full of information – and surprises.
I cite specific brands and products to bring home these points, not because I want to call out these particular manufacturers or items for scorn. For every example I cite, you could find many more and maybe better ones. If you do, be sure to let me know and I’ll be glad to add a postscript. For product-specific information in this post, I relied on the product labels available through online grocery shopping services and Shopwell, a neat free website and mobile app that allows you to easily compare different grocery items. (I only found Shopwell in the course of writing this post and didn’t give that site any advance notice of this post.)
3 Food Label Secrets Your Mother Didn’t Teach You
(No disrespect intended to your mother. If she did teach you these secrets, then my hat is off to her. And if she didn’t, it’s not her fault. Who knew? Certainly I didn’t – up until I “got religion” when it comes to food labels and started checking them, which was way after my own kids left home. So if you are one of my kids and you are reading this, my apologies. If you keep reading, you’ll learn, perhaps belatedly, and hopefully be the wiser for it.)
- Watch for Thickeners – One day when I was buying sour cream and yogurt, I noticed that some brands contain thickeners while others do not. There are natural as well as artificial thickeners, but at the end of the day, all give the product a consistency it would not otherwise have had. For example, Stonyfield Smooth and Creamy Plain (both lowfat and whole milk) yogurt contains pectin, Yoplait Light Fat Free Very Cherry flavor has modified corn starch and gelatin and Superior brand sour cream includes modified food starch, gaur gum, carrageenan and locust bean gum. I have nothing against thickeners (even plain flour can be a thickener) in gravy and many types of jam, as well as lots of other foods. Still, it was a surprise to find them in dairy products and items that I don’t think of as thickened, such as chicken vegetable soup (Progresso Carb Monitor version.)
- Check for Sugar in Unlikely Places – Foods that you might not think contain added sugar do – for example, hamburger rolls (3 grams of sugar in 1 Sunbeam hamburger roll with high fructose corn syrup listed as an ingredient) and pasta sauce (11 grams in Ragu Chunky “Mama’s Special Garden Sauce” with sugar listed as an ingredient.) Foods such as fruits have naturally occurring sugar, so not all sugar found in the list of nutrition facts on the package is added. You have to look at the list of ingredients and be aware that added sugar can appear with a variety of different names. Here is an article with a long list of “other” names for added sugar. Of course, you have to be sensible about the search for sugar. (Diabetes, food allergies and other sensitivities are good reasons to be ultra careful. I feel lucky that I don’t have to watch out for those for myself or others in my family.) I was surprised to find organic cane sugar among the list of ingredients in Whole Foods Organic Low Sodium Chicken Broth. However, because there is less than 1 gram of sugar in a cup and sugar constitutes less than 2% of the product’s ingredients, I’m not concerned about using that broth from the perspective of added sugar.
- Don’t Make Assumptions – When I started this post, I mentioned my friend, Elizabeth. She bought MaraNatha “All Natural No Stir Creamy Almond Butter.” She assumed that it did not contain added sugar – but it does, in the form of organic unrefined cane sugar. It turns out that there are types of MaraNatha brand almond butters that contain only almonds, such as the one labeled “Natural No Salt Added Creamy & Raw”. She didn’t realize the difference between those 2 almond butters and neither would I – would you? Here’s a twofer. I wouldn’t have guessed the thickener or sugar content in Wallaby Organic Creamy Australian Style Nonfat Pineapple Yogurt. That particular (and pricey) yogurt contains organic locust bean gum and 20 grams of sugar from various sources, including organic evaporated cane juice.
What is the most surprising thing you have ever learned by reading a food label?