Confessions of a Food Label Reader

“John, oh my god! You’re never going to believe this. You’ve got to check out the fridge. They’ve labeled everything!”

Such were the words of a roommate I once had in my twenty’s. We had been living for almost a year with a soon-to-be-married couple, and it seemed they had just raised the stakes of the territorial marking game to ridiculous levels.

Indeed, upon opening that fridge, I was amused and shocked to discover said couple had taken upon themselves the task of boldly labeling, with their initials, every last morsel of food that they claimed to be theirs, down to the last stick of butter.

I say claimed because some of it was my other roommate’s food!

For me, most of the shock came from bewilderment. Who on earth would ever bother to label something so simple as food? Or even concern oneself with them?Was the situation that desperate? And why would anyone expect or demand my attention to a label on some food item? Everyone knows labels are lame. Who on earth reads labels?

So it was no small task to convince myself years later, when I decided to completely transform my life physically, mentally, and spiritually, that I may need to make somewhat of a commitment to reading labels on foods. This is not going to be easy, I thought. I come from a mentality that seemed to profess a “if it’s sold on the shelves, it must be safe” philosophy. As far I was concerned, things like reading ingredients and labels belonged in the “fine print” category of life. And I mean, what sane person really reads the fine print? When I bought my first home, I must have signed 100 papers in 10 minutes at the closing. I’d say I read about 2 percent of it, with surely one percent consisting of the words “sign” and “here”. For all I know, if I miss a mortgage payment I could be exiled to hard labor in Siberia the next day. But who on earth reads labels?

And besides, who knew what some of those words meant on the sides of foods? Di-sulfate what!!? And I was pre-med in college.

But still I tried. I began doing that quarter turn of every food item I lifted from a shelf to locate the fine print. But what to look for? What was bad? Was it all bad? Should this store be condemned for selling poison?

I found myself in a foreign rain forest of foods I thought I knew, with the sudden need to walk into the grocery store with a machete and an eye patch, chopping through the dense thicket of ingredients I could not read, pronounce, or understand. For me reading ingredients on food was like a Kenny Rogers tune – I didn’t know when to hold them, fold them, walk away, or run!

The internet was only of minimal help at first. Half the websites out there have you half-dead, poisoned, and growing a third limb before you even walk into the store.

This couldn’t be the way. This could drive a man insane.

Labels are lame.

But transformation is a funny thing. It’s the sum of the parts, the parts, the whole, and then some. If you’re going to commit to it, it’s going to have to be thorough, deliberate, and complete. It certainly isn’t the hokey pokey. One foot in, one foot out…

Yeah, that’s definitely not what it’s all about.

In others words, a basic awareness of the ingredients you should be avoiding is going to be a necessity. But it doesn’t have to be anything like the above examples!

So here is what I did – I chose to focus on some basic research. To get a feel for what some of the ingredients were that kept popping up over and over again as ones to avoid. I made a mental note of top things people were avoiding and I asked,

“Which were the ones that were almost universal across the whole spectrum of wellness?” From doctors to researchers, bloggers to fitness experts, which ones seem to pop up on almost everyone’s “no” list? And then I sought to gain a basic understanding of why. So that, once I determine what those were, I can simply experiment with just looking for those ingredients, and proceed accordingly.

In other words, I simplified the whole process. Drastically so. And the results were astounding to both my physical and mental health.

What follows is the short but carefully deduced list of the foods I practiced avoiding for a month, with a brief personal description of why. It’s not meant to provide an exhaustive list of research findings, but to show how I have come to now live, and what has worked for me. It’s a derivative of tons of deliberation and awareness. It’s been a year, and I rarely read labels anymore. I just know to absolutely avoid these items.

And I would say it’d pretty darned good advice.

1. High Fructose Corn Syrup. HFCS, as it is called, was introduced into diets in the 1970’s. Sugar prices were extremely high during that decade, and businesses were looking for a cheaper alternative. HFCS, which is made of corn, was developed in a lab and found to be a cheap, tasty alternative to sugar. So enter the FDA with a solution – subsidize corn! Cheap corn means even cheaper HFCS. And so gradually it found its way into tons of foods, with devastating results. The obesity and diabetes rate charts from the 1970’s skyrocket compared to the rest of the 20th century. And it continues exponentially to this day. Coincidence? You want to know if HFCS is in your food. Start with salad dressings and cereals. Become aware. This stuff is poison.

2. “Partially hydrogenated…” Any list of ingredients with these words I immediately avoid. This is an absolute marker for bad choices. You know those trans-fats everyone warns against for good reason? The fats that are unnatural and wreak havoc on everyone’s health and blood-work numbers? Well, the first step in their creation (because they are cheap, last longer, and are tastier) is to add some extra hydrogen bonds to the organic molecules making up the food. In a laboratory of course. A partial hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated means fully horrendous. Start with crackers, cookies, and chips. Become aware. Anything with these words in it is poison too.

3. The commodities – Corn, Soy, and Wheat. The first two were easy. This one took a while. The bottom line is this – corn and soy are top two on the list of most genetically modified crops in the world, and wheat isn’t even wheat any longer. GMO corn and soy are produced and peddled by the evil Monsanto Company, subsidized by the FDA, and sure to be the type of corn and soy in anything sitting on a shelf in a package or box. It might be generating profits for corporations, but genetically modified foods are alarming. They are not fully researched, some of the research is awfully bad news, and they are not found in my diet. Meanwhile, wheat is now a hybrid crop so far removed from what it was originally grew on Earth as, it has more in common with a modern day opiate than the foodstuff mentioned in the Bible. So, I avoid any item that contains in its ingredient box the words corn, soy, or wheat. If you’re worried about paying for your kids college, you may want to pay attention to corn, soy, and wheat day to day. But personally I see no “futures” in any of them for me.

And that is simply it. 14 months ago I started with these three things. There was a learning process, but it has worked. My drop from blood pressure readings in the 180’s over 140’s to completely normal readings, my 73 pound weight loss, my drastic reduction in body fat and waist size, my increase in energy levels, my increased sleep levels and quality, my reduction in anxiety, and my ability to get on in life without any medications or prescriptions whatsoever – this all would definitely not have been possible if I didn’t start becoming aware of and eventually avoiding these three things. It has led me to my path – hundreds of simple meals without a single trace of these ingredients.

My approach to label reading is still akin to what TD Suzuki described as the “Beginner’s Mind” necessary for proper Zen practice throughout life, the ultimate way of awareness and mindfulness.

I still simply look for these three things.

I did not write this piece to report on my now expertise on every known substance harmful to the human body. I started with a simple destination in mind, and I have arrived. While maybe one day I will add more items to practice avoiding, for now this has sufficed.

But I somehow feel I will never achieve “expert status” on reading food labels.

Maybe I’ll consult with my old roommates.