Why Reading Food Labels Isn’t Enough

Friends and relatives often question “can you eat x or y” on your vegan diet? Many people can barely comprehend not eating meat and fish, let alone dairy products, eggs, and honey–of all things.

Fewer people understand what a vegan diet has to do with avoiding processed foods–such as white rice, white pasta, white bread, and sugar–or even vegetable oils.

These measures are the guidelines of a whole-foods plant-based vegan diet, such as that endorsed by Rip Esselstyn’s Engine 2 Diet, and displayed in Del Sroufe’s Forks Over Knives cookbook, containing healthy vegan recipes by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Julieanna Hever, and others.

Bottom line is, while many processed foods may be technically vegan or “accidentally vegan” as PETA refers to products with no animal-based ingredients, they are unlikely to be “accidentally healthy”.

And while you may relax your standards on a rare occasion–when dining out or visiting friends–you’ll surely feel better long-term by keeping tempting vegan junk foods out of your grocery cart, and out of your house.

When analyzing packaged foods, I often refer to nutritionist/dietitian Jeff Novick’s rules and guidelines for  telling the difference between a health food vs what’s really healthy for you:

Rule #1-Never believe anything on the front of the package…ever!

Rule #2-Always read the Nutrition Facts Label and the Ingredients List.

Novick gives guidelines for fat, sodium, white sugars and refined sugars, and refined carbohydrates–4 things commonly abused in the United States.

Fat

Daily fat requirement–in order to avoid essential fatty acid deficiency–is only 3 to 5%, while the typical American intake is 35%!

Calculate fat % by dividing calories from fat by the # of calories

Sodium

Daily sodium requirement is 500mg/day; aim for no more than 1 calorie: 1mg of sodium

Sugars

Novick says that–since the Nutrition Facts panel lists “total sugars” only–you cannot determine natural sugars (such as in fruit) versus added sugars. Therefore, refer to the ingredients listing in order to avoid all added sugars (at least, he says, sugars should not be among the first 3 to 5 ingredients)

Carbohydrates

The “Nutrition Facts” panel does not tell the reader anything interesting about carbohydrates, Novick says. Therefore, refer to the ingredients list, and SEEK OUT the desirable terms “whole” or “sprouted” and AVOID the words “wheat”,” white”, “durum”, “semolina”, “bleached”, “unbleached”, “artichoke” and “enriched flour”.

Fiber

Aim for products that carry >3g of fiber per 100 calories

To apply Novick’s technique, let’s take a package of Nabisco Newtons Fruit Thins stashed in a typical SAD household. The box touts “8g of whole grain per serving”, “made with real fruit”, “blueberry brown sugar”, and “natural flavor”.

Sounds so wholesome, someone might even mistake them for a “health food”! OK, I admit it: I finished off the bag, without thinking…

Newtons Fruit Thins Ingredients: Unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin b1), riboflavin (vit b2), folic acid), whole grain wheat flour, soybean and/or palm oil, sugar, rolled oats, dried blueberries, brown sugar, flax seeds, fructose, salt, baking soda, soy lecithin, natural flavor

Newtons Fruit Thins-Nutrition Facts

3 cookies=1 serving

150 calories

Total fat 5g

Saturated fat 1g

Sodium 85mg

Potassium 55mg

Total carbohydrate 22g

Dietary fiber 2g

Sugars 8g

Proteins 2g

 So, how did Newtons Fruit Thins do?

They came out OK for Fat (5g/150=3.3%) and Sodium (150calories vs. 95mg sodium).

According to the ingredients, sugar is the 4th ingredient, and brown sugar and fructose are in 7th and 9th positions. While Newton Fruit Thins thankfully contain no high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) like many other products, do you notice how naturally sweet blueberries take a back seat to processed sweeteners?

Newton Fruit Thins contains several words indicating processed ingredients, including “unbleached, enriched, and wheat”. While they include flax seeds, whole grain wheat flour and oats, these are all further down–and therefore less by weight–than the undesirable processed carbohydrates.

Using 3 kinds of sugar, Fruit Thins fail the sugar test, and with only 2g fiber per 150 calories, they also fail for fiber.

Newtons Fruit Thins passed only on fat and sodium, but failed everything else. While relatively healthier than Nabisco’s “Social Tea” biscuits next to them on the shelf, they nevertheless belong in the trash can.

Ditto for the accidentally vegan Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars. Despite that that box says “100% natural” and “16grams of whole grain”, fiber is only 2g per 190 calories, less than half what Novick recommends.

Of course, we must remember never to pay attention to the front of the box!

In summary, Novick’s guidelines say:

  • Check the calories from fat against the calories
  • Check the sodium against the calories and then read the ingredients
  • Make sure there aren’t any animal fats or bad fats
  • Limit the sugars and look for whole grain

You’re always better off reaching for whole foods like vegetables, fruits and nuts over processed foods.  Do you see how to apply these tips in your own decisions for shopping, cooking, and eating?

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