by Shaylyn Romney Garrett, HC, TNC
As a Health Coach and Nutrition Counselor, people often ask me, “What would be the
number one thing I could do to upgrade my diet?” My answer is always this: start reading
food labels. Whenever you buy a food product at a grocery store, to a large extent you are
surrendering control over what ingredients, additives, and chemicals are making it into your
food. And if you’re struggling with chronic illness, toxic food additives and ingredients you
are sensitive to can be a major danger zone. Which is why getting good at the skill of label
reading is so important—it’s the number one tool you have to maintain control and make
sure you know what you’re putting in your cart, your pantry, and your body.
Frustrated? You’re Not Alone
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates that all packaged
food products contain a list of ingredients and a “Nutrition Facts” label, which details some
basic nutritional information about that product. But in addition to those mandatory
elements, food manufacturers often put health claims on packaging to try to entice you to
buy—and they are often misleading.
The fact is that most people find all this information baffling. In a 2012 Nielsen Survey, 59%
of people around the world reported feeling confused about how to decipher food labels.1
Not only that, but research shows that people think they are reading labels far more
frequently than they actually are, and those who do read the Nutrition Facts usually stop
after the first five lines.2
If you’ve felt frustrated or confused about how to read a food label and use the information
to make better choices, you’re not alone. But the good news is that reading labels can be a
lot simpler than it seems. And—like any other skill—you’ll get better at it with practice.
Focus on the Ingredients List
Most often, people who take a moment to look past the claims of “Low Fat!” “Heart-
Healthy!” or “All Natural!” start with the Nutrition Facts, and focus on the calories. This can
be useful if you have certain health goals, but it’s usually a distraction. Especially if you have
a chronic illness, your focus should not be on counting calories or controlling portions, but
rather on keeping your diet as clean and free from irritants as possible. This one goal is hard
enough to achieve when you’re not feeling well, so focus on what counts by always starting
with the ingredients! The most informative information about any food you’ll buy at the
grocery store is found there.
Especially when you are ill, you need to do everything you can to create a healing
environment—inside and out. In choosing what you buy and eat, your job is to keep toxicity
and irritation to a minimum by investing in the best ingredients you can afford. When
working with ingredients lists, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But it’s simpler than you think!
Here are 3 easy tests that you can use today to upgrade what goes into your grocery cart.
Test #1: How Long is the List?
Your goal should be to eat foods as close to their whole and natural form as possible. You
just can’t outsmart nature: Foods that are whole and intact contain more and better
nutrients, digest more easily, and usually keep your blood sugar more regulated—all of
which are vital if you’re suffering from chronic illness. The longer the ingredients list, the
less likely that package contains foods in their whole and natural form. I like to call products
with long ingredients lists “Franken-Foods,” because they usually contain all sorts of things
that were once whole foods but have been pulled apart in a laboratory and glued back
together again with chemicals. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the list, the scarier the
ingredients it contains. The shorter the list, the closer it is to being something you’d want to
How long is too long? I like to aim for 5 ingredients or fewer.
Test #2: Can I Recognize and Pronounce Everything?
As you’re scanning the ingredients list, ask yourself, “Do I know what these words mean?
Can I pronounce them? Do I have some idea of what these ingredients are and why they’re
in here?” If you answer “no” to any of these questions, put the food item back on the shelf
and move on. Look for words that imply minimal processing, such as “ground,” “dried,” or
“dehydrated,” rather than words like “hydrogenated,” “interesterified,” or “brominated.” In
general, if it sounds like a chemical, it is a chemical. And chemicals—more often than
not—irritate the digestive system and cause disruptions in the body that you just don’t need
to be dealing with on top of your illness.
Bottom line: If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it.
Test #3: The Deal Breakers
There are many ingredients that are allowed in our food system that are known or
suspected to be harmful to the human body. I like to call these ingredients “deal breakers,”
because if I see them on an ingredient list, then no matter how enticing the food product is,
I put it back. If you’re concerned about your health and wellbeing, you should consider
adopting this same sort of standard. Even if you can’t do all ten right away, pick a few to
start with and commit today that those dangerous additives will no longer come home with
Here are my Top Ten “Deal Breaker” Ingredients:
1. Hydrogenated or Partially Hydrogenated Oils
2. Mono- or Diglycerides
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup
4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in all its forms
5. Sodium Benzoate
6. Sodium Nitrate / Sodium Nitrite
7. BHA & BHT
8. Potassium Bromate / Brominated Vegetable Oil / Bromated Flour
9. Artificial Sweeteners (not just Aspartame!)
10. Food Colorings (including Carmel Coloring)
Learning to read food labels will be one of the most important skills you develop as you
move through your healing journey. Start with these simple strategies and before long you’ll
become an expert food detective!