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Do you know what's in your food? Do you read your labels? Many consumers do, but it takes some reading between the lines to get the whole picture

Do you know what's in your food? Do you read your labels? Many consumers do, but it takes some reading between the lines to get the whole picture.

Under Canadian law, all prepackaged food products require a label, with the exception of one-bite confections, such as individually wrapped candies or sticks of chewing gum, and fresh fruits or vegetables packaged in a wrapper or thin, confining band. The ingredients must be listed in descending order of proportion by weight in the food. So, when you see a label listing sugar as the first or second ingredient, you know that a major part of what's in the package is just that sugar!

The exceptions to this "rule of descending order" are spices, seasonings and herbs (except salt), natural and artificial flavours, flavour enhancers, food additives, and vitamin and mineral nutrients and their derivatives or salts. These may be shown in any order at the end of the ingredients list. So, when you see a food additive listed last, you can't assume that the amount is insignificant.

Consumer beware, and consumer compare! When buying prepackaged foods, choose products whose ingredients you recognize as natural food substances and whose presence you would expect to find in the product. A good rule of thumb is: if you don't recognize an ingredient or can't pronounce its name, don't buy the product!

In this new alive "Reading Labels" series, we'll take you shopping in the aisles of natural food stores and show you how the labels compare with those of mainstream products found in supermarkets. We've done the comparison shopping to make it easier for you to choose the healthiest foods for yourself and your family!

Let's begin with a perennial children's favourite: peanut butter. Peanuts are not technically nuts, but belong to the legume family. They're high in protein, B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium and potassium. Because of widespread peanut allergies, most schools don't allow peanuts, or foods containing them, so you may have to restrict your enjoyment of peanut butter snacks to home.

PDF Figure of What to look for

If you purchase peanut butter from a health food store, the ingredients label will likely read "organic roasted peanuts." And that's all you want to see! Peanuts must be roasted because the process neutralizes cancer-causing mold aflatoxins that tend to develop in raw peanuts. And you definitely want your peanuts to be organic! Commercial peanut crops are often rotated with cotton, a non-food crop that is heavily treated with chemicals too toxic to be permitted on food crops, but whose residues are transferred to the peanut crop the following year. In view of this, is it any wonder peanut allergies are so common? Those who are afflicted often find they can tolerate organic varieties. Organic peanut butter is a healthy, nutritious snack that you can give your children with confidence.

Not so for many supermarket versions! The label on a popular brand reads: "Roasted peanuts, sugar, peanut oil, hydrogenated vegetable oils, salt, cooking molasses, mono- and diglycerides."

Why add sugar (and it's sure to be refined here) to peanut butter? Sugar has no nutritional value, robs the body of B vitamins and promotes blood sugar problems and obesity. Cooking molasses, a byproduct of cane sugar manufacturing, is processed with sulphur dioxide. Natural peanut butter tastes delicious without sweeteners.

Peanuts are naturally rich in oil, so there's no need to add extra peanut oil, which, in a commercial product, is certain to be refined and therefore processed with yet more chemicals. Hydrogenated vegetable oils contain trans fatty acids, which are chemically altered molecules implicated in numerous disease processes. Along with mono- and diglycerides derived from vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils give peanut butter a smoother texture and longer shelf life because they prevent separation of solids from fats.

In untreated peanut butter, the oil eventually separates from the solids, but can easily be mixed back in by stirring. Wouldn't you rather do that than eat a processed product full of toxic additives?

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