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Label Reading 101
(in the United States)
Last update 11/3/2013

Clean labels.

When a label has only a few plain ingredients like "flour, eggs, sugar, salt," it is called a "clean label." The food industry knows you want "clean labels." They are doing better and better at GIVING you "clean labels." However, just because a chemical is not on the label doesn't mean it's not in the product. With multiple flavor enhancers and clever ingredient manipulations, the labels are hiding more and more of the chemicals you don't want to eat. They're not on the label, but you may still be EATING the very additives you are trying to eliminate. How will you know if the food is additive-free ... or if it is only the label that looks good? When you are a member of the Feingold Association, you will know, because we find out for you.

There are some other additives you may also want to eliminate, but here we will cover only the ones that cause the most problems for the most people:

  • Artificial food dyes ... most are made from petroleum
  • Artificial flavorings (including fragrances) ... most are made from petroleum, and there are several thousands of them
  • The three preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ ... they are made from petroleum

  1. Note:
    • Being very strong chemicals, additives are often listed near the bottom of the label, so begin reading the label from the bottom up. It will save you time. See the sample labels below in #5.
    D&C dyes can contain twice the amount of lead as FD&C dyes. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not consider them safe enough to be included in foods, but they are safe enough to be given to your sick children or used in your children's toothpaste where it will be absorbed through their tongue and gum membranes directly into their blood.
    Figure 1

  2. Colors
    • Coloring can be natural or artificial. The artificial (fake) colors are made from petroleum and are called Azo dyes.

    • Red 3 is a little different because it is iodine-based and can injure your thyroid gland.

    • Several of these fake colors are bronchoconstrictors, which means that if you happen to have asthma, they can make it worse.

    • Blue 1 is known to cross the blood brain barrier and is toxic to mitochondria, giving it some interesting medical properties.

    • Look for a color plus a number, like Yellow 5 or Blue No.1 ... they may or may not also say FD&C or D&C (see Figure 1 at right).

    • When you see a color with a number on the label, stop reading and put it back on the shelf.

  3. Flavoring
    • Flavorings can be natural or artificial. They may (or may not) also have a "salicylate radical" and there may be hundreds of these chemicals in a single flavoring.

    • With practice, the word "artificial" will begin to jump off the label wherever it occurs. When you see it on the label, put it back.

    • The words "Flavoring" or "Flavor" used alone may be artificial (or not). You won't know without the help of the Feingold Foodlist.

    • "Vanillin" is an artificial flavoring. It can be made from petroleum, from pulp paper mill waste, even from cow dung. Since these last two are natural sources, their manufacturers try hard to call them natural. However, they are different from the complex vanilla bean extract which includes vanillin as one of its many parts.

    • "Vanilla Flavoring" may (or may not) be pure vanilla.

    • Even "Natural Flavoring" may (or may not) really be natural. It may (or may not) be from a salicylate source.

      How will you know? If the product is in the Feingold Foodlist book, then the flavoring is from a natural source, and it is assigned to Stage One or Two according to its salicylate content.

    • When you see the words "Pure Vanilla" this is the real thing, a complex flavoring combination from the vanilla bean. "Pure" vanilla from some other countries, however, may be diluted with artificial vanillin flavoring. How will you know? By using the Feingold Foodlist book.

  4. Preservatives
    • There are several perfectly good natural preservatives, like mixed tocopherals (vitamin E).

    • There are several preservatives that don't bother most people, like polysorbate 80, sodium benzoate, etc. Products containing benzoates, nitrites, sulfites, and some others are marked in the Feingold Foodlist for those who suspect or know that they are sensitive to them.

    • The three petrochemical preservatives BHA, BHT, and TBHQ are very cheap and used heavily in this country. They are the worst. They have been known to affect behavior, learning, and sleep since the 1970s. Besides that, scientists use them to help give rats more tumors when they want to study cancer.

    • Sometimes they are called "antioxidants" which sounds good, but these three chemicals are only antioxidants in the package. Once you eat them, they become pro-oxidants and cause oxidative stress which is harmful.

    • Sometimes they are not listed in the actual ingredient list, but below it. They may also be hidden inside other ingredients (like oil or vitamin A palmitate) or be added to the wrapper.

      So how will you know when it is in there if it's hidden? If the product is in the Feingold Foodlist book, then these chemicals are not in there. The Feingold Product Information Center (PIC) does the work for you.

  5. Hover your cursor over the labels below for practice: