Becketwood Cooperative
An Active, Independent 55+ Community of Owners in Minneapolis

Confessions of a Label Reader

By Naomi Jackson, Becketwood Member

Note: A number of Becketwood members have food allergies and sensitivities, so a subcommittee of the Environment Committee is working with our kitchen crew to make ingredient lists available for commonly used foods such as condiments. This will involve reading lots of labels, so I wanted to share my own story about why I became a label reader.

Healthy Plate Healthy Planet Series

In the mid-1980s I lived in southeastern Minnesota, as far south as you can get without spilling over into Iowa. The economy was based on big agriculture: corn, soybeans, chemicals. The geology was karst: limestone with vast underground networks of caves, streams, and sinkholes. Anything applied to the ground, be it rain or Roundup®, moved directly into the groundwater with little or no filtering. For four years I lived next to vast farm fields and drank well water.

Three years into my sojourn in karst country, I was diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities. MCS is caused by exposure to toxic chemicals at a level your immune system is unable to cope with. Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, Mine included headaches, digestive problems, and what I call “fuzz-brain.”

Worse than the symptoms was the battle to regain my health. In 1986 most doctors didn't believe there was such a thing as MCS, and those that did, didn't know how to treat it. Apart from my allergist, I was on my own. He gave me a rather daunting list of things to avoid, from gas stoves (didn't have one, fortunately) to canned foods (didn't like them, fortunately).

I was to avoid all petrochemical products, from gasoline to fragrance to food additives. I had to avoid pesticides and herbicides as well as common household products such as dryer sheets and cleaning products. In addition, my allergist suggested that I avoid all sugar, yeast, and mold (e.g. mushrooms and aged cheese).

That's how I became a label reader.

No longer could I wander the grocery store aisles, choosing anything that looked good. I had to read the ingredients on each label. Shopping took a really long time. You'd be surprised how many items in a grocery store contain some sort of unpronounceable additive. And the ones that didn't contain multiple additives had been sprayed with multiple chemicals.

Finding foods I could eat was so difficult that I lost 20 pounds in two months. People thought I was sick, but actually, aside from being hungry all the time, I was feeling better. Life without calcium propionate and potassium iodate was good.

My next job took me to the Canadian border. There a couple who were experts on organic gardening and healthful eating befriended me. They offered me a large garden plot and fed me amazing vegetable salads. Soon I was growing all my own vegetables, eating local, sustainably grown meat, and taking my turn driving to the Twin Cities to pick up organic fruit orders.

I still had to go to the grocery store for things I couldn't grow or obtain locally, so I still had to read the labels before I bought anything. Over the years, I got interested in knowing what all these added ingredients were, what purpose they served, and what their effects on human health were.

Finding the purpose was easy, thanks to the Internet. For example, the bread additive DATEM (diacetyltartaric and fatty acid esters of glycerol) enhances the action of gluten.

Finding out if an ingredient was safe wasn't so easy. Government regulatory agencies always say that the additives are “considered safe for human consumption.” Certainly they are safer than what 19th-century American bread makers and 21st-century Asian honey producers put in their products, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'd want to eat them. At the end of this article you'll find resources to help you identify and evaluate the additives in your food.

After 30 years of reading labels, I take it for granted, although now I have to remove my glasses to see the fine print. It's a bit of a hassle, but I'd like to argue that reading labels is worth it for everyone. Even if you don't have food allergies or sensitivities, your health depends on eating good quality food, and food laden with additives is not good quality.

Yes, good food is more expensive. A few years ago a friend and I were driving through Wisconsin and took a break at a truck stop. While I waited for him to get his coffee, I noticed a big display of cookies, $1.99 per dozen. Cookies at my co-op cost $1.69 each. How could this store possibly sell cookies that cheaply?

It must be the ingredients. I read the label. There wasn't much in those cookies that I recognized as food, but one that really surprised me was a sugar substitute, propylene glycol. Sounds like something you put in your car engine. I looked it up when I got home. It's an “edible” antifreeze. Yuck. People actually eat this?

The cookies were cheap because real ingredients such as flour, eggs, sugar and butter had been partly or mostly replaced by cheaper substitutes, some of which are benign, some of which are not.

If you'd like to delve into the world of label reading, a good place to start is to not trust appearances. It might look like butter, but has something been added? What about the bacon, the pasta sauce, the orange juice and, yes, the salt? Do they contain additives that might not be good for you, or the added sugar you've been trying to avoid? And just because a product says “gluten free” doesn't mean it's a healthful substitute for whole grain bread.

Another thing to look for is a big price difference between apparently similar items. Take vanilla extract, for example. The Watkins brand is about half the price of the Frontier organic brand. Watkins vanilla extract contains water, glucose syrup, propylene glycol, vanilla extract, alcohol, artificial flavors, and caramel color. Frontier contains organic alcohol and organic vanilla bean extract.

I know that the cost of food is a serious consideration for many people. However, consider the impact on your health of eating food that isn't really food, or produce that's been treated with pesticides and fungicides, and ask yourself, would I rather pay the doctor or pay the grocer?

Read those labels, and remember that if you are putting good food on your plate, you are also doing something that's good for the planet.


Agency for Toxic substances and Disease Registry

Ask Umbra: What are “natural flavors” anyway?

WHO International Programme on Chemical Safety




Leave a Reply

  • carol bechtel April 7, 2017, 3:34 pm

    Way to go, Naomi! I am passing this on to my dietician daughter. You have said what needs to be said so well, I’m sure she can use it, too.

  • Linda Kusserow April 7, 2017, 3:40 pm

    Really interesting article, Naomi. I’m a member who’s yet to move in at Becketwood.We met at the coffee shop and talked about washing machines and chemical sensitivities. You must feel at times as if you’re allergic to the world! See you in May. Linda

  • Ruth April 7, 2017, 5:00 pm

    THANK YOU, Naomi, and all who are commenting on this blog. What hope it gives me to live in a community that is conscious and aware and open to learning and change!!

  • Carol Masters April 7, 2017, 9:26 pm

    A really good, informative article — and great to have the resources! Becketwood Members and beyond should find them helpful.

  • David Liddle April 12, 2017, 12:32 am

    GREAT article–full of important information, seasoned with a little humor and extremely well-written. Thank you!