Be a Label Reader

In order to keep things as simple as possible in our kitchens, we like to think of “Real Food” as food that is as close to it’s natural and original state as possible.

The reality is, most of us don’t have a cow in our backyard that we are milking for fresh milk and butter and cream!  Most of us don’t have the time to make every single thing we eat from scratch.  Most of us still go to the store.

We want to feed our families nourishing, wholesome foods.  So, what do we buy?  How do we find the best foods that fit our budget and lifestyle while keeping it “Real”?  For starters, we need to become excellent label readers!

The first rule of thumb when reading the ingredients list on any product is the fewer the ingredients, the better!  When a can of diced tomatoes lists tomatoes and salt as the only two ingredients, that sounds pretty real to us!  However, if you find a can of chicken broth with more than 15 ingredients, half of which you can’t pronounce anyway, the broth probably isn’t very “Real”.

So what are some ingredients that should be avoided?  What should we be on the look out for?  Oh, we are so glad you asked!

Here are a few ingredients that Oh Lardy likes to avoid whenever possible:

High Fructose Corn Syrup

  • HCFS is highly processed and most likely comes from a genetically modified crop.

Partially Hydrogenated Oils (trans fats)

  • Can also be listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, mono- and diglyceride,  high-stearate, stearic rich, or fully hydrogenated.  In the United States, a product can contain .5g or less of trans fat per serving and still have 0g listed on the label.
MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
  • Ingredients that ALWAYS contain MSG: Glutamic acid, glutamate, monosodium glutamate: monopotassium glutamate, yeast extract, anything “hydrolyzed” and any “hydrolyzed protein”, autolyzed yeast, gelatin.
  • Ingredients that often contain or produce MSG: flavors, flavorings, broth, stock, maltodextrin, protease, malt extract, soy sauce, seasonings.
  • MSG  is a flavor enhancer that is very controversial.  It is a known excitotoxin that hyperstimulates the taste buds.  It has also been linked to many other adverse health effects.

Preservatives (TBHQ, BHT, BHA)

  • Possible carcinogens.  TBHQ is a form of butane.

Artificial Colors

  • May also be listed as food coloring, color added, or by its number, Yellow #5, for example.  These are colors that are by products of petroleum and have been linked hyperactivity in children.
  • Currently, the United States uses the following food dyes:  FD&C Blue #1 and #2, FD&C Green #3, FD&C Red #3 and #40, FD&C Yellow #5 and #6, Orange B, and Citrus Red #2.

Artificial flavors, Natural Flavors

  • May be listed as flavoring, e.g. Vanillin.  Many artificial flavors are derived from petroleum.  Labels do not usually state which flavoring or how many flavorings are included.  It could be 1 or 100.

Synthetic Sweeteners

  • Aspartame, Acesulfame-K (or Acesulfame Potassium), Cyclamates, Saccharine, and Sucralose.  All are made in a laboratory and are possible carcinogens.
  • Aspartame is made up of Aspartic Acid, Phenylalanine, and Methanol.  Brand names include NutraSweet, Equal, Spoonful, and Equal-Measure.  Acesulfame Potassium is a derivative of acetoacetic acid.  Brand names include Sunette, Sweet One and Swiss Sweet.   Cyclamate is the calcium salt of cyclamic acid.  Sweeteners produced by Sweet ‘N Low and Sugar Twin contain Clyclamate, but not for those distributed in the United States since it was banned in 1970.  Saccharine brand names include Sweet ‘N Low, Sugar Twin, Necta Sweet,  and Sweet Twin.  Sucralose was discovered while trying to create an insecticide!  A common brand name for sucralose is Splenda.


  • Oils, lecithin.  Soy is almost always genetically modified and the soybean contains high amounts of enzyme inhibitors, phytic acid, nitrites, and aluminum.


  • And other manufactured oils: vegetable, cottonseed, etc.  It is almost always genetically modified, can sometimes contain trans fatty acids, and is highly processed.

Genetically Modified ingredients

  • Whether genetically modified foods (GM or GMO) are safe or harmful is controversial.  The fact is, we just do not know enough right now to decide.  Many other countries have either banned or restricted GMO foods or at the very least label food that contains GM ingredients and are proceeding in a cautious manner until they are proven safe.  In the US, it is just the opposite.   Most common GM foods are: corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, sugar beets, papayas, and some zucchini.

Nitrates and Nitrites

  • Nitrates themselves are not generally harmful, but are converted into Nitrites in the human body, which have been known to contribute to a number of cancers as well as other health conditions  The FDA sets limits on how much nitrates can be added to food items.  Oh Lardy tries to avoid them as much as possible.


Now that you can comfortably identify Red Flag ingredients on labels, we will define other common terms found on labels that may be confusing.


  • Traditional solvent extractions:  Very popular method of getting oil from a seed or nut using hexane (a poisonous chemical).  It is very effective and recovers 99% of the oil.  Then it is heated to a high temperature to get rid of the hexane.
  • Cold pressed oils: oils obtained through pressing and grinding of fruit or seeds.  These are oils that are expeller pressed but the temperature is below 120 degrees.  In the US there is no regulation over this, unlike Europe.
  • Expeller pressed oils: Chemical free mechanical process.  Nuts/seeds are squeezed under high pressure to get the oil.  There is no external heat, but the friction may create a high heat.


  • Pastured: eggs from chickens that have been allowed to roam in open pastures.
  • Organic:  Chickens must be fed organic feed and not given hormones or antibiotics.  This has nothing to do with how the animals are kept.
  • Cage free: means chickens are not kept in cages.  There are no regulations about their housing besides that.
  • Free Range:  Chickens that are supposed to have access to the outdoors;  that could mean a small door leading to a concrete slab.
  • Omega 3 eggs: While pastured chickens get omega 3 fatty acids from the grass, some hens are fed flax seed which also increases amount of Omega 3 in the yolks of eggs.  This term has nothing to do with how chickens are kept.


  • Sprouted: the process of germinating grain that activates enzymes, neutralizes phytic acid, increases the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals, and allows for overall easier digestion.
  • Whole grain: contains all three parts of the grain kernel (bran, germ and endosperm).  Provides more fiber, more protein and many vitamins and minerals
  • Multigrain: a product must contain at least two different types of grain, however, the term has nothing to do with the way that a products grain must be prepared.
  • Whole wheat: the entire bran, germ, and endosperm of wheat.

Pastured meats: meat from animals that have been allowed to roam in open pastures.  Meat from pastured animals is richer in both healthy fats and antioxidants.

Organic:  foods that are produced without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, do not contain genetically modified organisms, are not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents or contain chemical food additives.

Organic Meats: meats from animals that are not given antibiotics, growth hormones and are fed an organic diet.

USDA Certified Organic:  Seal of approval for many organic foods.  Means the farm/producer has been inspected and follows organic processes.

Grass fed: Cows that have been pastured on grass and fed hay.  Grass Fed/Finished means the cows have eaten only grass/hay their entire lives.  Grass Fed/Grain Finished, means they were fed grass the beginning of their lives and then fattened up on grain/corn, which is common on feed lots (CAFO).  Many good farmers do grass feed their cows and finish them with grain (hopefully organic/non GMO).  This is different than cows that are packed into feed lots, fed antibiotics, etc.  This is why it is such a good idea to know your farmer!  Ask questions about how the cows are raised.

Natural (food):  Essentially meaningless.  Technically, the FDA does not object to food that is minimally processed and free of synthetic preservatives, artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors and other additives; growth hormones, antibiotics, hydrogenated oils, stabilizers and emulsifiers.  The FDA does not have an official definition for labeling purposes.  Technically, by their vague concepts, high fructose corn syrup would be considered natural.  Do not rely on the word ‘natural’ to determine if a food item is healthy or real.

Natural (meat): “Naturally Raised” means no growth promoters, antibiotics, or animal (or fish) by-products.

Genetically Modified (GMO): Food that has had genes from another species of plant/animal inserted into their genetic code.  Most common GMO foods: soybeans, corn, rapeseed/canola, sugar beets, cotton (cottonseed oil), papayas, some zucchini and squash

Organically grown:  Food that is produced organically but is not certified.  This is not always a bad thing.  Sometimes it can be expensive and arduous to undergo certification for small farms.

Local: Lawmakers haven’t been able to agree on a definition for “Local.”  The 2008 Farm Act states that locally produced food should be 400 miles or less from farm to market, or within the state of production.   Personally, we think local food should be produced nearby and definitely in the state we live!

Next Step: Choosing More Nourishing Ingredients



Be a good label reader