HEALTHY CHOICES WITH LIZA BAKER: Demystifying food labels (part 1)


By Liza Baker

As a health coach, I encourage my clients to learn to cook from scratch using whole, close-to-the-source foods as much as possible, and yet I realize that most of us do buy at least some processed foods.

The whole/processed spectrum

If the terms “whole” and “processed” are not familiar to you, consider an apple and a green-apple flavored hard candy: an apple, picked off a tree, washed, and eaten is about as whole as you can get. If you peel it, you’ve minimally processed it—it’s still recognizable as an apple although it’s lost some of its nutritional value. If you cook it, you’ve processed it more. Adding sugar to the applesauce moves it even further away from whole and close-to-nature. And that green-apple flavored candy? It’s probably never been near a real apple in its life.

Want another example? Take edamame, those delicious soybeans that you pop out of the pod and eat. The least processed version: edamame, steamed and salted (you’d likely have a serious stomach ache if you ate them raw, pod and all). Soybeans that are made into soymilk are more highly processed, and soy protein isolate (a common ingredient that increases the protein content of innumerable shake mixes, bars, etc.) is perhaps the most processed version of this plant.

Cooking from scratch at home sounds like an impossible dream for many of us (it’s not—it took me about a decade to get to the point of cooking 21 meals a week from scratch, but it is possible, I promise), so if you’re going to buy processed foods, what are the best ones to look for?

Most whole foods don’t come from the store with a label—when’s the last time you saw an apple with a label other than one of those obnoxious PLU stickers? These are the foods to focus on.

The government has tried to help us figure out the nutritional value of foods, but if food labels look like Greek to you, you are not alone! Not to worry: if you don’t get bogged down in what has been called “nutritionism,” where you count every gram, calorie, and percentage point until you make yourself crazy, there are just a very few things you need to be able to decipher.

If you do buy foods with a label, there are two sections that are required to be on the package: the ingredient label and the nutrition facts.

Let’s start with the first one, also called the list of ingredients. We’ll cover the second one next month.

The List of Ingredients

How does the ingredient list help you identify the most healthful foods? There are a few simple rules to observe:

  1. Normally, the shorter the list, the less processed the food. Look for foods that have less than 5 ingredients total. Have you looked at the labels on bread recently? I looked at one brand (which shall remain nameless) that has over 25 ingredients on the label—if you have ever made bread, it takes exactly four: flour, water, yeast, and salt. What are those other ingredients doing in there, anyway? (We’ll talk about that below!)
  2. Look for labels on which you can recognize and pronounce all the ingredients on the list without having more than a high school diploma. A hint: if you don’t have a chemical in your home kitchen, you probably want to avoid food made with it.

The ingredients are not listed on a label in alphabetical or random order: by law, they must appear listed by descending order of predominance by weight, which translates into “the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first.”

But guess what: say you’re trying to avoid sugar. Don’t get fooled into thinking that just because sugar isn’t first on the list that the food is good for you. Sugar hides under a lot of nicknames: anything that has the word “syrup,” “malt,” “juice,” “concentrate,” or ends in –ose, among many others. So if you were to add up all these sugars, you can bet that sugar would be higher up on the list, probably near the top if not first.

And the words “spices” and “flavorings,” even preceded by the word “natural,” can be anything from black pepper to MSG (which some people are sensitive to), so buyer beware.

The ingredient label must also state whether it contains any of the most common food allergens, which the government has determined are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans.

If the food is processed in a place where these allergens are also processed, the label must say so, even if the allergens aren’t an actual ingredient.

What are the food ingredients to avoid?

Really, they are the ones that are made in a plant rather than grown on a plant: most are added to foods to make them taste saltier or sweeter, to make them tender, to color them, or to make them last longer on the shelf, and many people have adverse reactions to these ingredients, including headaches, brain fog, allergic reactions, and behavioral disorders—especially in children.

My list of “try to avoid ingredients” include:

  • added sugars/sweeteners (that includes all the artificial sweeteners, large amounts of honey as well as anything that has the word “syrup,” “malt,” “juice,” “concentrate,” or ends in –ose; I also avoid Agave (highly processed) and Stevia except in tea made with the whole leaf—the powdered and liquid forms of this plant are highly processed)
  • hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • artificial flavors and colors
  • emulsifiers
  • preservatives

A final word of caution

Just because a processed food says “all natural,” “gluten free,” or “organic” does not make it good for you!

Sugar is sugar. Honey is sugar. Maple syrup is sugar. All of them, even when organic, are not good for you in large amounts.

What’s a large amount? Tune in next month for Demystifying food labels, Part 2, in which we’ll take a look at the nutrition facts label.

Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a full-time Integrative Nutrition® health coach, cookbook author, part-time consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four. Her work is grounded in the belief that women can live happy, healthy lives, meeting all our obligations and honoring our own wildest, sweetest dreams. Her programs support women 40+ who feel that the only way out of their overscheduled lives involves a plane ticket, a wad of cash, and a change of identity. Liza coaches them in identifying and interrupting the patterns that contribute to overwhelm and in establishing simple, sustainable new habits that will help them not just survive but thrive in what—contrary to popular belief—can be the happiest, healthiest decades of our lives. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and exercise, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work at and join her membership site, (Sorta) Secret Sisterhood, at

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