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Understanding Food Labels

Today’s foods often contain chemicals and ingredients that are meant to extend their life, improve flavor, or even brighten coloring. Unfortunately, many of these products can cause weight gain, allergic reactions, and other health problems. Food labels allow consumers to check what is inside of a specific product before they buy it. This ensures that they are making informed decisions about what they consume themselves, and what they feed their families. When checking the label, it is important to check not only the ingredients, but also calories, nutritional values, and serving sizes. Additionally, a product label will also include allergy and other warnings if necessary.

What Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup?

Sweeteners are often a concern when looking for healthy food choices. High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener that often appears on food labels. This combination of fructose and corn syrup, which is glucose, has generally been considered more unhealthy than table sugar and other sweeteners. More recent studies are conflicting, as some have shown that there is little difference in high-fructose corn syrup and sugar because both add calories and can be a problem in terms of diabetes and weight gain. Other studies claim that the difference is in how the body metabolizes the two sugars and that high-fructose corn syrup is metabolized in a way that is more likely to encourage health problems.

Artificial sweeteners are also common in many of the foods today. Popular sweeteners include stevia and saccharin. While artificial sweeteners are an effective way of sweetening foods, some are the subject of health concerns. Saccharin is a well-known artificial sweetener that for years came with a cancer warning on the label. This label has since been removed, as health agencies have been unable to find any scientific proof that saccharin or any other FDA-regulated artificial sweetener is a cause of cancer. Stevia, a plant-derived sweetener, is labeled as “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.

What Are Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Oils?

Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are two ingredients to look out for when avoiding foods that contain unhealthy ingredients. These are liquid oils that have been chemically modified to create more solid fat products and to extend their shelf life. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats, which are considered “bad” or unhealthy fats that raise cholesterol and contribute to diabetes and a host of other health problems. Fully hydrogenated oils contain saturated fats and contribute to heart disease and high cholesterol; however, they do not contain trans fats.

Does “100 Percent Vitamin C” Mean “100 Percent Juice”?

Not all fruit juices on the shelf are the same or contain the same amount of actual fruit juice. The healthiest options a person can buy for themselves and particularly for children are juices that are labeled as 100 percent fruit juice. In most cases, the carton or bottle will clearly state that the product is 100 percent juice. Confirm this by checking the ingredients on the label. These juices will not have a long list of ingredients, but fruit cocktails, flavored drinks, and juice blends will. Eight ounces of 100 percent juice counts as one serving of fruit; however, it should not be the only source of fruit, as it lacks dietary fiber. Different types of juice have different amounts of vitamin C as well. While 100 percent orange juice may have 100 percent of your daily vitamin C or close to it, others juices will not. Check the label and look for juices that are also fortified with vitamin C.

What Are Preservatives?

Preservatives are chemicals that prevent the spoilage of food by microbes or other sources of unwanted chemical changes. They reduce the likelihood of food-borne illnesses and help to maintain the nutritional value of food. They typically serve to inhibit the ripening and rotting of fruits, the oxidation of fats that results in the food going rancid, and the growth of bacteria, molds, and yeasts that can grow on food. A variety of chemicals are useful as preservatives, including sulfur dioxide, sulfites, propyl gallate, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA),butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium nitrate, and sodium benzoate. While preservatives are necessary to keep food fresh, not all of them are without harmful side effects. For instance, sodium benzoate, BHT, BHA, and sodium nitrate may cause cancer if consumed in large amounts. In addition, sulfites may cause allergic reactions in some people. Salt, sugar, vinegar, and sage are examples of natural food preservatives. Sage is useful for preserving meats and cheeses, while vinegar is good for preserving canned foods such as pickles, and sugar and salt reduce the amount of water content in food, making it harder for microbes to grow and cause spoilage.

What Is MSG?

Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG, is a sodium-based food additive designed to enhance the flavor of certain types of foods. This popular ingredient is found in a variety of natural foods such as cheeses, mushrooms, potatoes, and tomatoes. It was first discovered as a taste enhancer by Kikunae Ikeda, a biochemist from Japan, who patented it in 1908. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), MSG does not contain gluten and is not harmful to those with celiac disease, although those who consume more than three grams of MSG by itself and without food may experience drowsiness, headaches, numbness, or heart palpitations.

What Are Organic Foods?

Organic meats and crops are grown or raised naturally in a way that does not pollute or damage the environment. For organic meats and other animal-based products, “organic” means that livestock were not given antibiotics or growth hormones. In addition, they were raised in a natural and open environment. Produce that is organic is not grown in or sprayed with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or other chemicals. Additionally, these products are not treated using wax or other preservatives before they are sold. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates and sets the standards for organic foods, and only foods that meet these standards will carry the certified USDA Organic label.

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