Reading Food Labels – A Crash Course

Reading Food Labels - A Crash Course : Colorado Center of Health and Nutrition Blog

Sometimes I can get so caught up in the details of complex lab work that I forget that we should always start with the basics of nutrition to improve health. Therefore I created this blog post to address the basics of label reading from a true health prospective. Many people are reading labels, and that is wonderful, but are you paying attention to the right things? Are you falling in to the traps of food marketing with catch phrases like “low fat”, “Sugar free” and “all natural”? Here are the ingredients you should be paying most attention to when reading your labels, why they are important, and how they affect your health.

In good health,

Dr. Kim Bruno


Read your Labels and Support your Health

Many packaged and processed foods contain harmful ingredients which can cause health imbalance.  These include:

  • Sugar – 4 Grams = 1 Tsp  (High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sucrose, Corn Syrup, Brown Sugar, Fructose, Dextrose)
  • Hydrogenated Fats (Trans Fats)
  • Refined, Enriched and Fortified
  • Nitrates and nitrites
  • Aspartame – (NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet-n-Low, Splenda, etc.)
  • Foods with dyes or #’s
  • Monosodium Glutamate – (MSG)

How Sugar Harms

The complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, grains, and fruits are good for you; the simple sugars found in sodas, candies, frostings, and packaged treats can do harm.  It’s as simple as that.  Here’s why:

Sugar depresses immunity.  Studies have shown that downing 75 to 100 grams of simple sugar solution (about 20 teaspoons of sugar, or the amount that is contained in two average 12-ounce sodas) can suppress the body’s immune responses. The immune suppression is most noticeable two hours after ingestion, but the effect was still evident five hours after ingestion.

Sugar sours behavior, attention, and learning.  Studies of the effects of sugar on children’s behavior are wildly contradictory, but the general consensus is that some children and adults are sugar sensitive, meaning their behavior, attention span, and learning ability deteriorate in proportion to the amount of junk sugar they consume.

Sugar promotes sugar highs.  Some persons are more sugar sensitive than others, and children may be more sensitive to sugar than adults are. A study comparing the sugar response in children and adults showed that the adrenaline levels in children remained ten times higher than normal for up to five hours after a test dose of sugar.  Studies have also shown that some children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) react to glucose-tolerance tests with a dip to low blood-sugar levels producing abnormal behavior.  High adrenaline levels or low blood-sugar levels produce abnormal behavior.

Sugar promotes cravings.  The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you want! A high-sugar meal raises the blood-glucose level, which triggers the outpouring of insulin.  This excess insulin lingers in the system, triggering a craving for more sugar, thus adding another hill to the roller coaster ride.

Sugar promotes heart disease.  When you eat excess carbohydrates, your body turns these sugars into fat.  The body stores excesses of most nutrients as a safeguard against starvation.  If you eat more carbohydrates than you can burn off, the excess is stored as fat.  People who eat too much sugar tend to have higher blood triglycerides, and this increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Soft Drinks. Many soft drinks provide a double-whammy of sugar and caffeine, a combination that sends most bodies (and minds) on an uncomfortable biochemical roller-coaster ride.  The junk sugars in soft drinks also take good things out of the body.  High doses of sugar and artificial sweeteners increase the urinary excretion of calcium, leading to weaker bones, or osteoporosis, and to deposits of calcium in the kidneys (i.e., kidney stones.).  The phosphoric acid present in many soft drinks further robs the body of calcium by increasing the loss of magnesium and calcium in the urine.

Packaged bakery goods. The combination of white sugar, white flour, and hydrogenated shortening makes packaged bakery goods a nutritionally empty package (i.e., crackers, chips, cookies, etc). Most sweet snacks, such as cupcakes and doughnuts, contain all three of these factory-made foods.  Look for baked goods that are made with whole grains, contain no hydrogenated oils, and are sweetened with fruit concentrates.

(Excerpts taken from The Family Nutrition Book. William Sears, M.D.)

* Note the importance of fiber in combination with carbohydrates.  A good rule of thumb is about 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving.   The higher the ratio of fiber per serving the better for blood sugar regulation.

Why fiber is so important

  • Fiber curbs overeating
  • Fiber reduces cancer risk
  • Fiber steadies your blood-sugar level
  • Fiber increases peristalsis
  • Fiber slows fat absorption
  • Fiber binds carcinogens
  • Fiber reduces cholesterol
  • Fiber promotes healthy intestinal bacteria
  • Fiber promotes regularity

So what’s so bad about artificial sweeteners?

Man-made artificial sugar substitutes include: Equal (NutraSweet/aspartame), Splenda (sucralose) and Sweet ‘N Low (saccharin based).

Reactions to Aspartame were disclosed in February of 1994 by the Department of Health and Human Services.  90 different documented symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Rapid heart rate                                     .
  • Numbness
  • Seizures
  • Slurred speech
  • Rashes
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of taste
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Visual disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss
  • Joint pain
  • Shortness of breath

Illnesses that may be triggered or worsened by ingesting Aspartame:

  • Brain tumors
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Lymphoma
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Parkinson’s
  • Epilepsy
  • Mental retardation
  • Birth defects

Hidden Forms of MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

MSG (an excitotoxin) causes damage to the neurons in your brain and has possible links to Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease and many others. Children are very susceptible to this type of effect on their sensitive and growing brains.  The damage may not be seen until many years later.

Additives that always contain MSG:

  • Hydrolyzed Protein
  • Textured Protein
  • Plant Protein Extract
  • Sodium Caseinate
  • Hydrolyzed Plant Protein
  • Yeast Extract
  • Autolyzed Yeast
  • Calcium Caseinate
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable protein
  • Hydrolyzed Oat Flour

Additives that frequently contain MSG:

  • Malt extract
  • Malt Stock
  • Flavoring
  • Spices
  • Seasoning
  • Bouillon
  • Broth
  • Natural Flavoring

(Information taken from Excitotoxins-The Taste that Kills by Russell L. Blaylock, M.D.)

Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein

Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein is a series of chemical processes; first boiling vegetables in sulfuric acid for several hours, then neutralizing the acid with a caustic soda (an alkalizing agent often used to make soap), and then drying the resulting brown sludge.  Additional MSG may be added to this fine brown powder.  Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein contains powerful brain cell toxins and it contains several known carcinogens (cancer causing substances).

The FDA does not regulate the amount of carcinogens allowed in hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or the amount of hydrolyzed vegetable protein allowed to be added to food products.  This substance poses an even greater danger than MSG itself.

Hydrogenated Fats/trans fats

Despite unsaturated oil’s origin, once you’ve zapped it with high-pressure hydrogen, heated it or treated it with chemical solvents it turns into a saturated fat and behaves that way in the body.  This hydrogenation process is how vegetable oil is turned into margarine. Hydrogenated fats contain another kind of fat that falls outside the saturated and unsaturated categories.  It’s called “trans fatty acid.”  It’s basically a molecule that has its head on backwards.  For your arteries, trans fats are as bad as (or worse) than saturated fats. Many studies have shown that trans fats raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Even if a label says it’s low in heart damaging saturated fat, it may still contain a large amount of trans fats. Trans fats raise the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol, while reducing the level of HDL (good) cholesterol. Trans fats have been shown to decrease the body’s ability to produce natural substances that regulate many of the body’s functions. Trans fats and hydrogenated fats may interfere with the ability of the cells of the body to metabolize the fats that are good for you. This may damage cell membranes of vital structures, such as the brain and nerve cells.

Hydrogenated fats are also widely used in restaurants for deep-fat frying, so the French fries so popular with children may be full of cholesterol-raising trans fats even if the establishment claims it uses “100% vegetable oil” for cooking.

Current label laws in the US are tricky. They can claim that a product has “0 grams of trans fat” if the product has less than one gram per serving. Therefore the product could still contain trans fat and if you eat over the designated serving (which most people do) then you would be ingesting more than one gram of trans fat.


Nitrates and nitrites, which are preservatives added to food, especially processed meats, form carcinogenic compounds in the intestines.  It’s best to stay away from the deli meats and the prepackaged meats as almost all of them have some sort of nitrate as a preservative. Fortunately, many of the phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables can fight against these carcinogens.

(Taken from The Family Nutrition Book by Dr. William Sears)

Enriched, Refined or Fortified

Enriched is often a tip-off that something good was taken out of the food, requiring another process to put some of the good stuff back in, but often synthetic forms of these removed vitamins and minerals are replaced and therefore are not as bio-available or beneficial to the body. Enriched flour and anything that is made with it are not nourishing as their whole-grain counterparts.

(Taken from The Family Nutrition Book by Dr. William Sears)


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