Deciphering Food Labels


Frequently, I’m told by new clients that they “eat healthy” during their initial consultation. On further investigation, their eating habits I discover that their “healthy eating” is mainly processed foods that have been “health washed”. Health washing, as I like to refer to it, is done when clever marketing and advertising people ,whom are very good at semantics, create alternative “healthy” names and packaging for not so healthy ingredients.

Today, lets familiarize ourselves with the sweeteners used in processed foods. Ready for your chemistry lesson?

Lets go…..

Artificial sweeteners are used in a variety of products including: beverages, candy, gum, yogurts. These products provide sweetness without the calories and carbohydrates, like sugar does.

Are they safe? Controversies have swirled around most of the additives. Sucralose, rebiana, and neotame appear to be safe, but acesulfame-potassium, aspartame, and saccharin may pose a slight risk of cancer. Limited research has been done on these artificial sweeteners to study long term effects of exposure.

The usual suspects…

Artificial sweetener: Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), a chemical combination of two amino acids and methanol, has been the focus of controversy since it was first used around 1980.

Questions of safety have comes up since the 1970’s. Aspartame has been linked to cancer, neurological problems and birth defects. A 1970s study initially brought forth concerns that aspartame caused brain tumors in rats, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration convinced an independent review panel to reverse its conclusion that aspartame was unsafe, and the agency approved its use.

Sweetener, thickener: Candy, marshmallows, syrups, snack foods, imitation dairy foods.

Corn syrup (dextrose) is made by treating cornstarch with a slurry of acids or enzymes. It contains no nutritional value other than calories, promotes tooth decay, and is used mainly in foods with little intrinsic nutritional value.

Dextrose when found naturally, is a sugar in fruits and honey. As we already stated, dextrose is void of nutrition and contributes to tooth decay. It’s often used in baking to color bread because when baked, it turns brown.

Sweetener: “Health” drinks and other products.

Fructose can be found in modest amounts in fruits and vegetables. Another major source of fructose in the typical diet is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which typically contains about half fructose and half glucose. Fructose itself is used as a sweetener in a small number of foods whose labels often imply, deceptively, that such foods are healthier than competing products that are sweetened with sugar or HFCS.

Fructose also causes insulin resistance, a key factor in both diabetes and metabolic syndrome, both of which increase the risk for heart disease.
Why? Large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup increase triglyceride (fat) and small, dense LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in blood and may thereby increase the risk of heart disease. Also, recent studies show that consuming 25 percent of one’s calories from fructose or high-fructose corn syrup (which is about half fructose) leads to more visceral (deep belly) fat or liver fat.

Again, eat fruit in its natural form and avoid products contains this.

Since the 1980’s the US consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has sky rocketed. Why, it’s cheap! This sweet syrupy like liquid is cheaper and easier for some companies to use than sugar. HFCS, on average, is about half fructose and half glucose—the same as ordinary table sugar (sucrose).

Why is bad? When consumed in large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup increase triglyceride (fat) and small, dense LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels in blood and may thereby increase the risk of heart disease. Also, recent studies show that consuming 25 percent of one’s calories from fructose or high-fructose corn syrup (which is about half fructose) leads to more visceral (deep belly) fat or liver fat.

I personally avoid its due to its highly refined nature (I prefer my food from a farm, not a laboratory) and because its probably made from GMO corn (I avoid all GMO products). In 2011 the US Dept of Agriculture estimated that each American consumed nearly 79 pounds of this stuff!

I’ve read that modest amounts of fructose from HFCS or other sources are safe and do not boost blood glucose levels, making the sweetener attractive to diabetics. However, large amounts promote tooth decay, as well as increase triglyceride (fat) levels in blood, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease. Like fructose, it can affect levels of such hormones that may lead to more visceral (deep belly) fat or liver fat which may be a component to weight gain and obesity.

Invert sugar is basically a 50-50 mixture of two sugars, dextrose and fructose. it is sweeter and more soluble than sucrose (table sugar). Invert sugar forms when sucrose is split in two by an enzyme or acid.

It provides “empty calories,” contributes to tooth decay, and should be avoided.

Lactose, a carbohydrate that is found only in milk, is nature’s way of delivering calories to infant mammals. One-sixth as sweet as sugar, it is used as a slightly sweet source of carbohydrate. It should be avoided by those with lactose intolerance.

(Adding this with sweeteners because of its close relationship with HFCS) is used in texturizing food. It’s made from cornstarch like HFCS. Normal maltodextrins are easily digested and absorbed by the body. But companies also use “resistant maltodextrin” to simulate dietary fiber.

In my opinion, it’s highly processed so best to avoid it!

This sweetener is about 200 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose), meaning that it (like artificial sweeteners and extracts of stevia called rebaudiosides) can be used to replace some or all of the added sugars in a wide range of foods and beverages. While this product has not been well tested in animals. However, as a fruit it has been used in China for at least several hundred years and as an herbal medicine for the past several decades with no serious complications noted.

Labels may call the ingredient monkfruit, but don’t think you’re getting a bit of whole fruit. Most manufacturers use a multi-step process to extract just the sweet mogrosides. So it’s another highly processed sweetener.

(Note: I just saw a Splenda product advertising this last night while shopping. Considering Splenda’s legal past, I’m not going to try it.)

Neotame, produced by NutraSweet Co. (maker of aspartame), is about 8,000 times sweeter than table sugar and 40 times sweeter than aspartame. While Neotame is chemically related to aspartame, the difference is it offers greater chemical stability. This being said, it can be used in baked foods. It is
likely to be used in low-calorie foods to adjust the flavor.

Neotame is often mixed with sugar or other artificial sweeteners. It was approved by the U.S. FDA in 2002 and the European Union in 2010, but is still rarely used.

Highly processed so avoid it.

Natural, high-potency sweetener: Used in diet beverages. Also called rebaudioside A; sold under brand names Truvia and PureVia. Purified from crude extracts of stevia, which itself is sold as a table-top sweetener at some “health food” stores.

Stevia, which is about 100 times sweeter than sugar, is obtained from a shrub (yerba dulce) that is grown in Brazil, Paraguay, southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Stevia and its derivatives are said to be the miracle sweetener because they are naturally derived alternatives to the often-controversial synthetic sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose, cyclamate). Some people complain That it adds a foul taste in certain foods.

*Just because a substance is natural, does not mean that it is safe. In the 1990s, the U.S. FDA rejected stevia for use as a food ingredient. Likewise, Canada did not approve stevia, and a European Community scientific panel declared that stevia was unacceptable for use in food. Why? High dosages fed to rats reduced sperm production which could lead to infertility or other problems. Pregnant hamsters that had been fed large amounts of a derivative of stevioside called steviol had fewer and smaller offspring. Several other noted studies found that rebiana-related substances caused mutations and damaged chromosomes or DNA. Long term study is needed to confirm these results.

When I think of stevia I think of the saying “less is more”. Naturally occurring sweeteners typically have no known side effects apart from weight gain. Eating stevia in leaf form may be the best option.

Saccharin (Sweet ’N Low) is 350 times sweeter than sugar and is used in diet foods or as a tabletop sugar substitute. Many studies on animals have shown that saccharin can cause cancer of the urinary bladder. In other rodent studies, saccharin has caused cancer of the uterus, ovaries, skin, blood vessels, and other organs. Other studies have shown that saccharin increases the potency of other cancer-causing chemicals. And the best epidemiology study (done by the National Cancer Institute) found that the use of artificial sweeteners (saccharin and cyclamate) was associated with a higher incidence of bladder cancer.

That being said. You’re smart. Use your best judgement.

Sorbitol occurs naturally in fruits and berries and is a close relative of sugars. It is half as sweet as sugar. It is used mainly in dietetic foods. Some diabetics use sorbitol-sweetened foods because it is absorbed slowly and does not cause blood sugar to increase rapidly. Moderate amounts of sorbitol are safe, but large amounts may have a strong laxative effect and even cause diarrhea.

Approved in the United States in 1998, sucralose, marketed as Splenda, is used in soft drinks, baked goods, ice cream, sweetener packets, and other products. Unlike aspartame, sucralose can be used in baked goods.
Sucralose is thought safer than saccharin, acesulfame-K, and cyclamate, but it is often used in conbination with acesulfame-K.

Acesulfame K contains the carcinogen methylene chloride. Long-term exposure to methylene chloride can cause headaches, depression, nausea, mental confusion, liver effects, kidney effects, visual disturbances, and cancer in humans. There has been a great deal of opposition to the use of acesulfame K without further testing, but at this time, the FDA has not required that these tests be done.

When the FDA first studied Sucralose, the Center for Science in the Public Interest objected. A study in rats had shown that it might cause premature shrinkage of the thymus gland, which is part of the immune system. Subsequent studies have not found any problems. A 2002 study in mice found that huge doses of sucralose caused DNA damage in mice, but numerous other genetic studies did not find any problems.

The manufacturer, McNeil Nutritionals, long advertised Splenda as being “made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar.” That statement may be literally true, but is misleading, as the Sugar Association charged in a lawsuit. In fact, the sweetener is a synthetic chemical made by chemically reacting sugar (sucrose) with chlorine. Therefore, it is not sugar.

Like other sugar alcohols (maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol), xylitol is not well absorbed by the body, so it has fewer calories than table sugar. Also, it does not promote tooth decay. Large amounts may have a laxative effect.

Xylitol is found in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables, and can be extracted from various berries, oats, and mushrooms, as well as fibrous material such as corn husks and sugar cane bagasse,and birch.

While Xylitol has no known toxicity in humans the source of the materials is questionable.

So now you’re more familiar with those tricky chemical names for sweeteners. Use your best judgement and as always, stick to a whole food, minimally processed diet.

In good health,


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