Labels and Your GENES

It’s not just the fashion industry coveting labels anymore. The scientific community and the wellness industry tell us labels are the key to better health and happiness. Food labels that is.

So, what’s the link between food packaging labels and your genes?

It’s what’s on the label that matters most. Perhaps to the surprise of many readers, I’m not talking about calories, fat, carbs or sodium measurements. I’m talking about the part of the label most of us are confused by, can’t find or purposefully avoid for fear of the words that stare back at us. Since most Americans are consumed with tracking calories to stay healthy, they’re also typically focused on the wrong part of the nutrition label. The ingredient label contains the information most pertinent to our genes.

If you want healthy genes, it’s time to start reading the ingredient labels of your favorite convenience foods, fast foods and take-out choices.

What does it say?
Do you recognize the ingredients?
Would you see the ingredients in nature?
Are there ingredients you don’t recognize?

Therein lies the problem. If you don’t recognize an ingredient as something you’d find in a normal household kitchen, then how will your body recognize it?

Don’t get me wrong – the body is a brilliant machine. It can certainly handle exposure to ingredients we eat, breathe and/or put on our skin that aren’t good for us. Heck, if it couldn’t handle it we’d all be dead by now.

But, thanks to epigenetics, we do know that all of these substances wash over our genes and potentially (de)activate specific genes before being used or excreted from our systems.

That means whatever appears on that label that you do or don’t recognize has the power to impact your health by altering your genes. Your favorite granola bars, those crackers that taste so yummy with that sharp cheddar, the frozen shrimp dish you ate last night, or the chips you snuck in because you were starving before dinner.

The ingredients in your food are all powerful and eventually wash over your genes, which can have implications for your health.

America’s top selling packaged foods are often laden with artificial colors, flavors, chemical preservatives, trans fats and other additives. Manufacturers add these components to make packaged products look better, taste better and last longer on the shelf – and help make them cost less.

Did you know that:

  • Cheese is white; orange and yellow cheese is dyed
  • Corn chips do not taste cheesy unless you add a fake cheese flavor (often chemicals)
  • Yogurt is naturally quite sour, but made sickly sweet with artificial sugars
  • Cereals can’t last on the shelf for 6-8 months without nasty cancer-causing preservatives like BHT

Many food additives generally regarded as safe by the FDA are actually banned in Europe and elsewhere in the world due to their toxicity to the body, including: potassium bromate, brominated vegetable oil, artificial colors and more. Specific scientific studies on how these additives affect our genes are not looking good, but the FDA isn’t changing its stance just yet. In the meantime, I’d rather not roll the dice on my health – would you?

We live in a busy world, and convenience foods like frozen dinners, packaged meals or even Starbucks may feel like a requirement to stay sane and productive. But, not all convenience foods are worthy of your consumption. It’s critical that you know what’s in those foods. Once you have the knowledge, you can make an informed decision about whether you want these foods to have a place in your health journey.

It’s about taking small steps to have a big impact on your health!

This week, I challenge you to skip the marketing messages on the front of the package and the healthy claims that try to convince you a product is good for you. The food companies spend billions of dollars on packaging, placement and advertising to convince us about the healthfulness of their products. Instead, grab your favorite convenience foods, flip the package over and check out the scary ingredient label. You can:

  • Ask the barista for an ingredient list of your favorite coffee/tea drink
  • Flip over that protein bar and read the fine print
  • Google search for the ingredients in your favorite fast food fare
  • Ask the cafeteria manager to share the ingredients of your regular lunch choices
  • Find the ingredients of that “healthy” cereal you love so much
  • Call the local take-out shop and inquire about the ingredients in your family’s favorite pizza or sandwich

Now you have a list of ingredients to learn about. Start checking out what they are one by one, or better yet, ask your hubbub coach in the latest coached challenge!

Bottom line? Skip the calories and read the ingredients.

Zengin, N., Yüzbaşıoğlu, D., Unal, F., Yılmaz, S., & Aksoy, H. (2011). The evaluation of the genotoxicity of two food preservatives: sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate. Food and Chemical Toxicology: An International Journal Published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 49(4), 763–769.