When Food Labels Don't Tell the Whole Story

We all know about food labels, right? And we all pay attention to them to see how much sodium and sugar and fat is in the food we're buying. And of course we look at the ingredients to ensure there is nothing artificial or bad listed in the ingredients. Am I right?

Well, what if I told you that food labels don't tell the whole story?

But there is good news first. And that is, if we're following a whole foods, plant-based way of eating than food labels are almost a moot point. That's because the "whole foods' part of that WFPB term means food as it grows in nature. And food that is sold as it grows in nature doesn't require a food label. It's only the manufactured or processed stuff that requires a food label. I've yet to see a field of spaghetti or chips or bread growing in nature. And that includes whole wheat spaghetti and bread. It includes baked chips. It includes gluten-free. It doesn't matter, none of those things grow in nature.

Of course, some people eat a steady diet of those things and then tell me they're following a WFPB diet and not seeing results. My answer to them is they're not following a whole foods, plant-based diet. Being WFPB is about being more than just vegan. It's also about eating whole foods as opposed to processed foods.

But even those of us who do try to stick to food as it grows in nature will find that there are processed or manufactured foods that we turn to as well. I have oatmeal every morning. Sometimes, I eat rolled oats cold and sometimes I cook steel-cut oats. Neither of those grow that way in nature either. But they are minimally processed. And foods like that I think are okay. Oatmeal, tofu, and seitan are a steady part of my diet. Less so, but occasionally, I will also have pasta or bread.

Now for the bad news. For as sophisticated as we may be at reading food labels, we don't necessarily get the full story when we read them. I learned this early on when I was starting on the whole foods plant-based way of eating, I looked at a product called textured vegetable protein (TVP). According to the label, the only ingredient was soy. Everything on the label looked right. But still the name textured vegetable protein just sounded like something heavily processed to me. So, I did some Google searches and learned that yes there is a fair amount of processing that goes into the product. I recall that after reading about it, I made a personal decision not to consume the product. And I never have.

This came home to me yesterday while teaching a cooking class in my community. There's a product that promotes itself as being a healthy alternative to similar products. On the label it says that no salt has been added to the product, but there is a "small amount of naturally occurring sodium" in the product. One can easily get the impression this is a low-sodium product consisting of nothing but soybeans (the only ingredients listed on the label are vegetable protein made from soybeans and water).

Sounds good, right? But if you taste it, you might wonder. I have found it to have a very salty taste. And while the sodium content appears low on the list of ingredients, the serving size is much smaller than the serving size of the products this claims to be an alternative to. When adjusting for serving size, this product has the higher sodium content.

After doing some Google searches on this, I learned again that it's the processing that changes everything. It's true that no salt has been added, but what I learned in my Google searches is that the way this product is processed creates salt and monosodium glutamate as byproducts of the production process. So, here we have salt and MSG created through the production of the product, but neither is listed as an ingredient on the food label because neither was added to the product. It came about simply from chemical reactions occurring during the processing to make the product.

And that's one of the problems with processed food. We don't know how the food is processed. And if there are byproducts of that production that result in ingredients that haven't been added by the manufacturer, then those ingredients don't need to be listed on the food label.

Right now, there's a soy product that has become popular among some members within my club. I personally am leery of it though. It's only made by one company and the processes they use to make the product are not known to us. So, while it may be really good, it is a processed food and without knowing more about it, I am going to shy away from it. That's not to say that I may never have it, but it's something that won't be a steady part of my diet.

My best advice is to stick to the produce section of the grocery store. And very, very rarely venture into the other aisles of the grocery store. The produce section is like its own little health store. To me, the rest of the store is the junk food store.