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Jun 22, 2008 12:30 PM

how diligent are you about reading labels?

my mother apparently doesn't always bother to read labels for ingredients...which i find bizarre considering that she has a potentially fatal food allergy. anyway, it got me wondering if chowhounds generally read the labels for ingredients and/or nutritional info before they try a new product.

those who know me are already aware that i'm a completely anal retentive label detective, but i'm curious about how concerned all of you are about knowing what's in something before you buy it...

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  1. I don't usually check all the ingredients, but I will usually give the fat/calorie info a quick scan. My only food allergy is to something that doesn't make it's way into most things, so I don't usually check for it, unless it's something that is likely to have it. Sometimes I'll compare the ingredients list of two products to try to make the better choice.

    1. I'm pretty good about it. But, then again, I rarely buy products that require labels. I don't eat cereals, etc. I would say condiments (ketchup, hoisin sauce, XO sauce, fish sauce, etc.) are generally the things in my kitchen that have labels on them. My grocery list tends to be generally fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and seafood. And even though Heinz Ketchup has things like HFCS, I don't really care because I don't eat ketchup by the cup. With a lot of Asian condiments, I try to avoid those with added MSG as it makes me very thirsty.

      It is pretty strange about your mom who doesn't read labels because of a serious allergy. I'm only really seriously allergic to one item and am really careful about it as it's an incredibly strong allergy.

      15 Replies
      1. re: Miss Needle

        Heinz has an organic catsup with no HFCS and it is waaay tastier than the regular. It tastes like it did long ago.

        Last year, I started checking ingrediants. It was pretty shocking how much junk is in even the simplest foods.

        I think some thread about avocado dip with no avocado in it got me started. Then sliced cheese ... now I just check everything out ... even organic foods.

        It is rare I'll buy anything with HFCS in it. I think even regular corn syrup throws off the flavor so it is unlikely I'll buy that.

        Sometimes I'll look at sodium, fat and calories, but not always since I don't buy much junk.

        1. re: rworange

          Yeah, I've had the organic Heinz before and definitely agree that it tastes superior to regular Heinz. Had no idea it didn't have HFCS. The bottle I have in the fridge now is regular Heinz because I really needed it at the time and just got it from my corner deli where they didn't have a huge selection. But I'll make sure to be more diligent in finding my organic Heinz from now on. Thanks for the info!

          1. re: Miss Needle

            Any organic product will not have HFCS in it. I still check, but I don't think they can lablel it organic if it does.

            1. re: rworange

              you're right about that. products that are labeled as either *natural* or organic cannot contain HFCS.

              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                I'm not sure that's true. There is no organic HFCS, so there isn't any that can be used in organic foods. But I don't think there's any actual prohibition on using it.

                The reason there's no organic HFCS is that the whole point of HFCS is to use overabundant cheap corn. I wonder if now that corn prices have skyrocketed more food producers will switch back to sugar.

                To get back to your original question, I read labels a lot. I avoid HFCS and transfats, and also low quality oils like cottonseed and soybean oil and canola oil (because I hate the fishy taste). That's not to say that I don't occasionally consume products with those ingredients, but I try to avoid them. I also try to avoid purchasing foods that have ingredients that are unnecessary if the product is made correctly (yogurt that has thickeners, etc.). So if there are half a dozen brands on the shelf, I'll read the labels before I decide which one (if any) to buy. Sometimes the ingredients are pretty much the same, but sometimes there are significant differences that aren't apparent in any other way (label claims, price, etc.).

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  update in light of ruth's reply, which was correct - there's no such thing as organic HFCS.

                  a quote from an FDA spokesperson re: the use of HFCS in products labeled as "natural":

                  "The use of synthetic fixing agents in the enzyme preparation, which is then used to produce HFCS, would not be consistent with our (…) policy regarding the use of the term 'natural'...Moreover, the corn starch hydrolysate, which is the substrate used in the production of HFCS, may be obtained through the use of safe and suitable acids or enzymes. Depending on the type of acid(s) used to obtain the corn starch hydrolysate, this substrate itself may not fit within the description of 'natural' and, therefore, HCFS produced from such corn starch hydrolysate would not qualify for a 'natural' labeling term."

                  of course the FDA hasn't passed any actual laws or official regulations about it yet...we can only hope they will.

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    Yes, you guys are totally correct that an organic product cannot have HFCS in it. I think a product can be labeled that it contains organic products, but still has HFCS, which shows one must really be careful reading labels!

                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                      Being allergic to corn & corn derivatives, I read all labels- and that isn't even enough to keep me safe as corny products are used as production aids and therefore don't have to be labeled (ie- conveyor belts dusted with corn starch, produce & meats are sprayed with a corn based citric acid wash).

                      As for corn syrup being natural, I agree with you that it isn't, but unfortunately the Corn Refiners ASSociation argues just the opposite: ...just as natural as honey & sugar, I don't think so.

            2. re: Miss Needle

              it was a condiment that sparked this. i read the label on a BBQ sauce she bought for herself & my dad, and the first ingredient was HFCS. when i mentioned it to her she said, "oh, that can't be good for us. i don't think we should eat that. throw it out." which, of course i did...but why she bought it in the first place without looking at the ingredients is beyond me.

              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                Wow, first ingredient as HFCS! I would think it would be on the lines of something like tomato puree or something.

                As I eat condiments in small amounts, I'm not as vigilant reading labels as other stuff. For example, it probably takes me over a year for me and my husband to finish a small bottle of ketchup. It's a balance that I'm comfortable with -- probably stems from my rebellion against my dad's orthorexia. I was fine with him doing whatever he did as long as he kept to himself about it. But I grew up getting really annoyed with my dad taking it to the extreme with other people. When we would go out to eat, he would order his own special dish and make comments during the entire meal about how unhealthy our stuff was (and it wasn't like we were eating at Mc Donalds or anything like that). He'd be criticizing us for eating something like pho because of the MSG, sodium and fattier cuts of beef, saying how it would be bad for our cholesterol, etc. (even though my cholesterol level has always ranged from 130-150). For the most part, I'm alert and concerned about what I put into my body. But I'm not 100% about it. I'm more concerned about what I put in my body over a long period of time. For example, I don't drink soda but may have a can with HFCS occasionally (and by occasionally, I mean a few times a year). One soda every few months won't kill me, but drinking soda on a regular basis is probably not the best thing to be doing.

                I'm not surprised that the woman didn't read labels at all. While most people I know are cautious about the foods and drinks the ingest, I know there are also people out there who eat Mc Donalds Big Macs on a daily basis. I think people need to find the balance that works for them.

                  1. re: Miss Needle

                    oy, i'm not surprised you feel compelled to rebel in some way. my brother's kids complain about how annoying he is with his insistence on healthy food at all times, and i get really upset when i see the way he controls their food at the table & scolds them when they want something he doesn't think they should have.

                    as i've mentioned before, i've struggled with eating disorders for most of my life, and i've been an orthorexic for at least the last 12 or so years...but the one thing i've always made sure never to do is foist my unsolicited opinion about the nutritional quality of other people's food on them. i've always figured if i leave others in peace to eat what they want, they'll grant me the same respect. [of course it never works out that way, but a girl can hope...]

                  2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    GHG, I thought you may be interested in this abstract about the effect of nutrition education and differences in dietary intake according to Myers-Briggs personality types. I haven't seen the entire study, but there are already a couple of things I wanted to mention. The sample size is relatively small (331), and they only studied college students. And I don't know exactly what criteria they used to define a "healthy" diet.

                    According to this study, those who prefer extroversion, intuition or judgment had tendencies for better dietary habits. Kind of interesting as I'm the opposite of that (ISFP), and I don't think my diet is that terrible.


                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      If nothing else, personality-type tendencies say nothing about conscious effort. Except in extreme cases, a lot of tendencies/habits can be overcome by purposeful action. In other words, if you have reason to "care" about having a good diet - for whatever reason - you will make more effort to have one than someone who "happens to find themselves" having eating habits that "coincidentally" happen to be healthy even if they don't care whether they're healthy or not.

                      A grad student study is likely to be fairly superificial - if very defensible - but the age range actually seems good to me. Beyond basic issues like weight-loss or philosophic-related diets (vegetarianism, etc), most college students are pretty un-self-conscious about eating habits - "statistically speaking" they haven't started worrying about things like cholesterol and heart attacks yet and they've only recently gotten "full control" over their own diets. It might not be a good guide to their eating habits 10 or 20 years later, but it's not a bad context for measuring "soft" personality-based correlations like this without having to try to filter out a lot of data extraneous to the question at hand...

                      1. re: Miss Needle

                        pretty cool - thanks for posting the link. i'd have to read the entire paper to see the validity of the measures, etc., but i do find it interesting that i "fit the profile" according to the abstract. i'm an ENFJ...and as we all know, a freak about nutrition.

                  3. Since I saw my doctor last August I do more reading in food stores than I do at home (and I loves my litteratour).

                    1. I check sugar and salt contents. But if I have some kind of potentially fatal food allergy, sure I'll check labels for that. I also check expiration dates. I have often found packaged food past their expiration dates still sitting on the shelves.

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: PeterL

                        Tip: Demand a huge discount for "expired" items.

                        1. re: mrbozo

                          actually, i always find a department or store manager & show them the expired product - there's no excuse for leaving that stuff on the shelf. i find it occurs with disturbing regularity in dairy cases.

                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                            Since I now only buy organic milk, I'm stunned at the expiration dates! Have a half gallon of Horizon Organic in the refrigerator right now I've been working on for over a week with an expiration date of July 22nd! How's that for longevity! Not nearly so long on organic eggs. The ones I bought yesterday have a July 18th date.

                            When it comes to reading labels, always always always on new items I haven't bought before. And a good part of the time, I put things back after reading. Not so much on things I have used before, but I really should. Companies are changing formulations all the time, and I do have allergies!

                            But now that I think about it, I generally don't read labels on snack foods I really want... I guess I stupidly figure I'll only give 'em up if they bite me! Hello Pringles vinegar and salt! '-)

                            1. re: Caroline1

                              Horizon is ultrapasteurized, which is why it lasts so long -- it doesn't have anything to do with whether it's organic. In fact, the reason Horizon ultrapasteurized is that organic milk doesn't sell as quickly as conventional milk and is often not produced locally, so it needs to have longer shelf life.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Thanks! I have found a website where you can order the low temp minimal pasturized organic milk and have it delivered regularly. Even in glass bottles if you want them! Haven't yet found out what the shipping costs would be, but I found them in a search for grass fed butter. If I'm changing over to good cholesterol and Omega 3s in beef, why not in butter and milk too? Meanwhile, Horizon is it locally.

                      2. I do watch for HFCs, thank goodness the FDA is now cracking down on the "natural" label and if a products contains them they will no longer be able to advertise them as "natural. I watch for sugars and carbs. I have no fatal food allergies. I cook pretty much from scratch and buy very little processed food.