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Labels and lies: Do you really know what you eat when you buy food?

Talking to Vani Hari about her message as to why you should look at nutrition labels closely

When Vani Hari was 22 years old, she had been a candy addict, drunk soda and eaten processed and fast foods all the time. She hardly touched whole foods and vegetables, until her body gave up on her. She landed on a hospital bed weak and fragile.

At that moment, she decided to make health her No. 1 priority. She used her newfound inspiration for living a healthy life to investigate what is really in our food, how it’s grown and what chemicals are used in its production.

Courtesy of Vani Hari

“Changing my diet to an organic whole food diet has changed my life” she said. “All the issues I had as a child—asthma, eczema, allergies—went away. I was on several prescription drugs, and I’m on zero today. My weight normalized, and I actually lost another 5 pounds (on top of the other 30+ pounds I had gained!) I began to have more energy than I had when I was years younger.”

She found that reading nutrition labels is one of the most important aspects of buying healthy foods.

“I read ingredient labels closely,” she said. “It’s the best way to know what’s truly in a packaged food and whether it’s good for you.”

Her research and continuous efforts to finding out what really was in our food led to her first New York Times bestseller The Food Babe Way exposing a lot of misinformation that’s being sold to Americans.

She points out, that one of the most important things is to pay attention to certain additives a product may include. The list is longer than you’d think. In fact, according Mark Hyman, #1 New York Times best-selling author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat?, there are 3,000 food additives in our food supply, many of which have not been tested for safety. Plus, the average American consumes three to five pounds of these chemicals a year. Yes, you read that right… Unfortunately.

What do these additives do to food and to your body?

They enhance the color, flavor or taste of the product, but they for sure don’t enhance anything within your body. On the contrary, they create unhealthy amount of oxidative stress, trigger autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, if you’re sensitive to them, they can cause skin problems such as rashes, gut issues such as diarrhea, nervous system problems such as irritability or insomnia.

Being FDA approved doesn’t mean “additive-free”

Hari adds that there’s an assumption that everything on supermarket shelves is safe. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” she says explaining that “while there are some food additives the FDA has approved before they hit the shelves, this has proven to be a burdensome process. The FDA claims that so as not to waste government resources, they would just let the manufacturer decide whether an ingredient is safe to eat or not. Even the FDA’s former Deputy Commissioner once confessed to the Washington Post: ‘We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals… we do have questions about whether we can do what people expect of us.’”

In addition, recent regulations published by the US Department of Agriculture set a high 5% threshold for unintended presence of genetically engineered (GE and GMO) ingredients in processed foods. It’s much higher than the 0.9% European Union standard.

Hari set out as her mission to tell people the truth about the food they’re eating. In her new book Feeding You Lies, she talks about how big companies have changed their food ingredients and become more transparent following her efforts and often times petitions.

“Subway restaurants agreed to remove the ‘yoga mat chemical’ from their bread following a petition I started,” she remembered adding that Kraft decided to remove artificial food dyes from their kids’ mac and cheese products after she stormed their headquarters with over 200,000 petitions.

Knowing what’s in your food is crucial to making sure you hold your health in your own hands and don’t consume “hidden” additives.

Hari says that marketing terms on the front of packages like “natural”, “diet”, and “heart healthy” are very persuasive. “Food companies know this and use it to their advantage,” she says. “They are banking on you not bothering to read the ingredients to see what is really in the product.”

3 questions to ask before buying food

  1. What are the ingredients?
  2. Are these ingredients nutritious?
  3.  Where do these ingredients come from?

Additives to stay away from

  • Preservatives – Some common examples are sodium phosphate, nitrates, BHA, BHT and TBHQ, found in cereals, crackers, snack foods, cakes. These additives are potentially cancer causing and/or endocrine disruptors. Try choosing fresh foods that do not have a long shelf life or organic brands that do not use preservatives.
  • MSG– Used as a flavor enhancer, MSG is one of the most fattening ingredients that can also cause adverse reactions in some people including skin rashes, itching, hives, nausea, vomiting, migraine headaches, asthma, heart irregularities, depression and even seizures. Hidden forms of it can be listed as yeast extract, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed protein, natural flavor or textured protein. It is commonly found in restaurant foods, chips, dips, frozen dinners, salad dressings and soups. This additive makes you eat more than you should, which is why the food industry likes to use it so much.
  • Artificial Sweeteners – These may do more harm than good, they may slow down your metabolism and “train” you to crave sweets. Look for aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, erythritol, acesulfame potassium, and acesulfame K on the label. You can also find them under brand names “Nutrasweet,” “Sweet N’ Low,” “Equal” and “Splenda.” They can be found in sodas, candy, yogurt, desserts and many other processed foods. Look for foods that are sweetened with natural sweeteners like monk fruit, honey, maple syrup, 100% pure stevia or coconut palm sugar and eat these foods in moderation.