Label fables part I I – Sugar

You spot a neatly packaged product in the grocery store isle and pick it up. The front of the package reads : “Whole grains” and maybe even “organic”. You immediately want to buy it. But wait, the voice in your head urges you to read the ingredients label, so you turn it around and read the ingredients. Despite being short on time, you read all the ingredients. Sugar doesn’t appear until the third line and you promptly put the item in your cart, satisfied that you made a healthy choice.

Or did you?

You diligently read the ingredients – but like most people, don’t really know what many of those names mean. While you were on the look out for “sugar”, and “high fructose corn syrup”, you might have missed several other ingredients that food processors cleverly put on the label in order to hide the actual amount of sugar. Since ingredients are put in descending order by weight, sugars are listed separately and in smaller amounts, making it much more difficult (for the consumer) to determine the amount of added sugar in a processed product.

Like the many different names of MSG in my last post, sugar has many different names too. Some are easy to spot while some might not be as easy.

  1. Names ending in ‘ose’ – Sucrose, Maltose, Fructose, Dextrose, Glucose, Galactose, Glucose solids, Lactose, crystalline fructose, anhydrous dextrose.
  2. Syrup – Corn syrup, Buttered syrup, Carob syrup, Malt syrup, Golden syrup, sorghum syrup, maple syrup, rice syrup, agave syrup, cane syrup, date syrup, refiner’s syrup, molasses syrup, oat syrup (avena sativa), rice bran syrup, syrup, tapioca syrup, barley malt syrup, pan cake syrup
  3. Sugars – beet sugar, buttered sugar, brown sugar, castor sugar, cane sugar, golden sugar, coconut sugar, cane sugar, invert sugar, raw sugar, organic raw sugar, muscovado sugar, raspadura sugar, confectioner’s sugar, palm sugar, grape sugar, demerara sugar, turbinado sugar
  4. Solids – corn syrup solids, glucose solids,
  5. Nectars – Agave nectar, ‘any fruit’ nectar
  6. Concentrate – Any ‘fruit juice’ concentrate, particularly grape, apple and pear.
  7. Crystals – Cane crystals, cystalline fructose, floride crystals cane juice crystals,
  8. Other names – Evaporated cane juice. Blackstrap molasses, caramel, diatase, treacle, barley malt, dextran, ethyl maltol, panocha, honey, molasses, diastatic malt.


Our metabolism does not differentiate between the different varieties of added sugars so it’s important to be aware of all the sources of added sugars (whatever their names may be).

Food labeling laws don’t require processed food companies to separate naturally occurring sugars (which are OK) from added sugars (which should be avoided). Naturally occurring sugar is alright only if consumed in its whole food form, such as from a fruit (not fruit juice) or from unsweetened yogurt, because fibre and other essential micronutrients are also a part of the whole food and the natural sugars in it aren’t as quickly absorbed by the body. Whenever sugar is processed and isolated and added separately to make food sweeter, that added sugar is stripped of the natural fibre and micronutrients, making it a source of empty calories.

Bottom line – if you are eating whole foods in their natural, unprocessed form, do not worry about the natural sugars. However, if you are eating primarily processed food, it is important to keep track of both natural as well as added sugars (with their many different names and forms).

An important point to remember when reading nutrition labels:
4 grams of sugar = 1 teaspoon


Label fables part I – Monosodium glutamate

This is by no means a new topic, but still as relevant today as when the (now outdated) term “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” was first coined in the 1960s. Monosodium Glutamate, or MSG, is a common food additive and a flavour enhancer. It is derived from glutamate or glutamic acid. Glutamate is a naturally occuring, non-essential amino acid found abundantly in nature. Glutamic acid is found in nearly all foods, especially high protein foods such as dairy, meat, fish and even some vegetables. Mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan cheese have particularly high levels of naturally occuring glutamate. The human body is able to produce glutamic acid, making it a non-essential amino acid.

MSG is in the FDA’s GRAS (Generally accepted as safe) list. However, the FDA has received reports of “symptoms such as headache and nausea after eating foods containing MSG”. Studies have shown that several people experience various symptoms like nausea, headache , tingling in arms and legs, immediately after eating food seasoned with MSG. Such people might be overly sensitive, or allergic to MSG. However, even in people who do not experience any symptoms immediately afterward, the effects of MSG can cause nerve damage over time. Russel L. Blaylock, a neurosurgeon, wrote a book in 1996 called “Excitotoxins: The taste that kills”, explaining that certain amino acids when present in large quantities in the brain, can cause neurons to die. Among the many biochemicals that can act as neurotransmitters in the brain, the ones that excite our neurons are called “excitotoxins”. Glutamate is one such excitotoxin. MSG leads to excessive stimulation of nerve cells in the brain. A research paper also talks about how excess glutamate can become neurotoxic.

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Is MSG safe for consumption in ordinary amounts used as flavouring? My goal isn’t to present arguments for or against MSG (there are enough articles out there either implicating MSG or acquitting it), nor do I want to change anyone’s mind. I simply wanted to do a blog post because MSG still is an important topic. Time and again, scientific studies have yielded conflicting results, at best. For every person who has ever felt a reaction to MSG, there is one person who will attest to the safety of the additive. While the jury is still out on whether MSG actually causes reactions in sensitive people and when consumed in ordinary levels can cause much harm to humans, I personally try to avoid it, even though I am among the people who see no immediate reaction to it.

Some might argue that MSG can’t be bad because glutamate is a naturally occuring amino acid. While naturally occurring glutamate is chemically similar to the additive, it may not be as easily accessible as the glutamate in MSG. Food processing industries are quick to point out that the glutamic acid obtained from any whole food is the same as the free glutamic acid in added MSG, and that the body doesn’t differentiate between the two. That’s exactly like saying that the body doesn’t differentiate between complex carbohydrates in whole foods and simple carbohydrates in refined food. But we know better, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, I assume you DO want to avoid added MSG in food. So how do we ensure we are keeping it out of our kitchen cabinet? When it comes to processed food we eat all too frequently, will simply avoiding Chinese food keep us away from MSG? Several fast food menu items from KFC (the worst offender) , Burger King, McDonald’s and processed food manufacturers like Nestle, Campbells, Frito-Lay, Unilever, Kraft foods, Planters (salted nuts), Knorr, contain some form of MSG. For those who can’t avoid picking up some processed foods from the grocery, is checking for the terms MSG, or monosodium glutamate in the ingredients label enough to ensure we aren’t getting any added MSG (other than what’s naturally present in real food)? If you answered yes, you’ll be surprised. As was I. Apparently, MSG can sneak into our food supply under several different names. See a long list here  and another list here.

If you find the names in the lists too complicated, remember these points:

  1. Salty and processed foods are likely to contain free glutamate.
  2. The presence of more than 10 complex sounding ingredients in a packaged food usually indicates MSG in one of its varied forms.
  3. Even if you are buying processed food from a health food store, do not skip reading ingredient labels. An innocuous sounding ingredient, “Natural flavour”, can contain up to 20% MSG by weight.

Processed food manufacturers want to use MSG in all kinds of food imaginable, so that their products taste good and people buy more of it. Now with so many other ingredients that actually contain free glutamic acid, they conveniently put “No added MSG” on the package and make that a selling point, while effectively deceiving consumers.

Look at the picture below. Can you spot any offending ingredient? Note how the package says “No added MSG” at the top. Now look at the ingredients in all of the processed foods in your kitchen. How many of the ingredients from the two lists above can you spot?


There are two ways to make sure you’re not being deceived into consuming what you want to avoid –

(a) Eat whole, unprocessed foods, and

(b) Carefully read the ingredients if you can’t avoid processed food sometimes.

When choosing option b), always remember that food manufacturers will continue to do their best to “disguise” additives they know people want to avoid.

Is there such a thing as `fewer calories per calorie`?

If you consistently ate processed meals of 2000 calories comprising burgers, fries and soda pop or whole food meals of 2000 calories comprising brown rice, beans, fruits and vegetables (all other variables remaining the same – in terms of physical activity, amount of sleep, etc.), would you gain (or lose, depending on your daily caloric requirement) the same amount of weight from each? Another way of asking this question is – Is a calorie a calorie? Or, are all calories the same?

In order to answer that question, I’m going to ask another question: what are the different ways in which we use the calories that we eat?

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), or the term we refer to as the minimum amount of energy spent to keep us alive when the body is at rest, and physical activity are the  two main uses for our calories. Can you think of anything else?  Do you need calories to digest and absorb food?

Energy expenditure includes –

  1. Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR, the term for energy spent to keep us alive at rest) which includes important functions like beating of the heart and breathing
  2. Physical activity
  3. Digesting, absorbing, transporting, metabolising, storing and distributing the nutrients in food, collectively known as the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), Specific Dynamic Action (SDA) or Dietary Induced Thermogenesis (DIT), accounting for roughly 10% of calories spent daily.

Energy intake refers to the calories from our meals, but it can be more complicated when we factor in the energy used from digesting our food to arrive at the ‘net’ calories consumed. Think celery. While celery itself has zero calories, when our body tries to digest the celery, it uses energy to break down the tough walls and absorb the nutrition in the celery. The net energy input from eating a stick of celery is therefore negative.

It is in our best interest to eat the kinds of food that will require more effort for the body to digest and absorb, so that we end up with fewer calories.

The average person uses about 10% of daily energy expenditure in digestion and absorption but the percentage depends on the type of food eaten. Protein requires about 20-30% of its calories for digestion, carbs require 5-10% (depending on the complexity of the carb), and fats require 0-5% of the calories. 100 calories from protein, therefore, would require 20-30 calories for digestion and absorption, and the net calorie gain would be 70-80 calories. Likewise, the net calories from carbs would be in the range of 90-95, and from 95-100 from fats for the same 100 calories. Since the primary function of protein is building and repairing the body, protein is not an efficient source of energy and its conversion to energy involves a complex process and whatever is not converted to glucose is excreted through urine. Would you still say “a calorie is a calorie”? I don’t think so J.



Photo –

The level of processing of foods also determines the net calories gained. Processed foods are bad – not just because they are nutritionally bereft and have a myriad of synthetic and usually harmful chemicals that go into them, but also because they are more simply digested. This means that our body doesn’t need to work as hard on digestion,  causing less energy loss and consequently more energy absorption, even with products having the same number of calories. There is more ‘net’ calorie assimilation with refined foods. Whole foods and the higher nutrient content in them – namely fibre, vitamins and protein, need more effort to be broken down and digested, resulting in a substantial amount of energy lost and fewer ‘net’ calories whereas processed foods are usually high in simple carbs and low in protein. Fewer calories per calorie, wouldn`t you agree?

Want to increase your energy expenditure? Eat more complex, whole foods so your body needs to work hard digesting and absorbing it and you get fewer calories from them in the bargain.

Here’s a research study to illustrate this fact: In a study funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Pomona College, seventeen subjects were given on two different days, two bread-and-cheese sandwiches that were the same in terms of caloric content (subjects could choose from 600 or 800 calorie portion sizes for each meal) but one was ″whole food″, comprising of multi-grain bread (containing whole sunflower seeds and whole-grain kernels) and cheddar cheese, while the other was ″processed food″, comprising of white bread and a processed cheese product. Each meal (and portion size) derived the same proportion of energy from both the bread and cheese (60% bread, 40% cheese). The whole food meal was 40% carb, 39% fat, and 20% protein; and the processed meal was 50% carb, 33% fat, and 15% protein. The whole food meal had about thrice the amount of dietary fiber than the processed meal.The researchers measured the extra energy over the BMR that each subject expended for six hours following the consumption of the meal. Without getting into the technicalities, let’s jump to the results. It was found that the subjects got 9.7% less net energy from the whole food meal than from the processed food meal as a result of DIT (TEF) in action. On a 2000 calorie diet, this translates to a net calorie intake of 1806, or a calorie loss of 194!. Of course, this value would vary greatly depending on the type of food and level of processing. The less processed the meal, the greater the energy loss, and vice versa. This calorie loss is without any kind of physical activity. So even if you do not exercise at all (which is not recommended, btw) you will still lose these calories by just eating whole food meals. But guess what, the energy loss from TEF can be increased if you exercise.

Other factors affecting TEF are exercise (studies have found that TEF is enhanced by aerobic endurance exercise and resistance exercise), the level of lean mass in men (a study found that men with more lean mass had significantly higher TEF than men of similar weight but having more body fat), eating at regular intervals and at the same time everyday (a study found that eating at irregular times decreased the thermic effect of food) .

So eat the right foods in the right quantity (at the right times in the day) and get moving. It’s really that simple.