How to read food labels for an elimination diet
Elimination diets can be a good way to identify food sensitivities. They help you pinpoint foods and chemicals that make you feel lousy and trigger IBS flare ups, migraines and more.
It’s simple enough on paper:
Remove foods that are common triggers for symptoms ranging from eczema to IBS to migraines to fibromyalgia and the symptoms can dissipate or in many cases, disappear completely.
Estimates indicate that upwards of 20% of the American population has some kind of food sensitivity.
That means millions of people could benefit from removing foods that trigger inflammation in the gut and the ensuing pain and discomfort inflammation causes.
Once those trigger foods are removed, the gut can start healing. Once the inflammation in the gut has calmed down, symptoms will improve.
And while everyone is different and everyone has their own unique food triggers and sensitivities, if you’re looking for a place to start there are a few foods that tend to trigger symptoms more often.
Dairy, gluten/wheat and soy are often identified as triggers.
Although identifying your personal inflammatory foods can be tough, it's not even the biggest challenge (don’t want to do all the trial and error? Try MRT instead).
What is the biggest challenge?
Eliminating the foods that bother you.
Again, eliminating foods seems simple on paper:
If dairy bothers you, stop drinking milk and eating cheese, right?
Yes... but, it also means giving up foods with whey, caramel flavor and butter flavor.
You're not just giving up milk, cheese and yogurt.
To truly heal you need to give up all foods that may contain dairy and scour labels to be absolutely certain the food contains no dairy products or ingredients that contain dairy.
Here’s the problem:
Food sensitivities are an all or nothing proposition.
Even foods that have a tiny bit of dairy (like foods containing nougat- another ingredient that could be made with dairy) could prevent the gut from healing fully.
If the gut doesn’t heal, nothing gets better.
The inflammation will not go down and you don’t experience the relief you have been looking for.
I do have good news though:
You (probably) won’t have to give it up forever.
Food sensitivities can change over time. Once a trigger food has been eliminated, the inflammation has gone down and the gut has had a chance to heal (we’re talking 3-6 months here) and you can start challenging with trigger foods again, if you would like.
You may find that you still can’t drink milk, but that caramel flavoring or even yogurt are tolerated just fine.
How to be a Diet Detective
How can you play detective?
How can you be sure that the foods you’re eating are free of foods you suspect are bothering you?
It all comes down to reading the food labels, specifically the ingredients list.
And being a bit of a detective.
Fortunately, some things are a little easier to spot, thanks to the “The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act” of 2004.
Here’s the gist of it:
Soy, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, eggs, fish and crustacean shellfish are the eight foods most likely to produce an allergic reaction- in fact, they produce over 90% of allergic reactions.
Because more people are allergic to these eight foods than any others, they must be identified on food labels, supplements/vitamins, and infant food labels.
Manufacturers have two ways they can identify allergens:
The first option is in a “contains” section at the bottom of the ingredients list.
You’ll see the words: “Contains milk and wheat” or “contains soy.”
In the second option, the common name for the allergen will be identified in parenthesis after the FIRST time the ingredient that contains the allergen appears.
It will say: “lecithin (soy)”, or “tempeh (wheat)”.
If a food contains a nut, it must specify which nut.
If a food contains a fish or shellfish, it must identify which one(s).
But the FDA only requires those eight foods to be identified on labels.
If you’ve got a gluten sensitivity, sure, you’ll be able to identify foods that contain wheat, but what about the other grains that contain gluten, like rye, barley, or malt?
That’s a little trickier.
Gluten containing foods are NOT required to be identified. And labeling foods gluten free is voluntary.
Fortunately, as of 2014, the criteria for calling a food “gluten free” have been regulated and the FDA now has strict guidelines if a manufacturer wants to slap a “gluten free” label on their food, supplement, medical food or infant formula.
Foods labeled “gluten free” must have less than 20 parts per million gluten.
One thing worth noting: there is no particular label to indicate something is gluten free, manufacturers can design their own.
The bottom line with gluten?
If you spot a product labeled “gluten free”, have faith that it will be safe, but labelling laws don't mandate identifying gluten in foods, so you must play diet detective and read over the ingredient list.
Identifying key words for trigger foods
Ok, diet detectives, let’s dive deeper into the wild world of ingredient lists.
The top eight allergens and gluten are the easiest to spot (or, in the case of gluten, spot the absence of the ingredient).
But, if you’ve got an intolerance to corn you won’t find anything on the label alerting you to corn.
And corn hides in almost everything.
This is where being a diet detective comes in handy.
Reading ingredient lists and knowing what words to look for are the keys to keeping trigger ingredients out of your gut.
Fortunately, we’ve got this handy cheat sheet to help you steer clear of common “trigger” ingredients and discover what’s actually in your food:
Caffeine is also known as guaranine, methyltheobromine, theine and trimethylxanthine.
Found in: coffee, tea (especially black tea), chocolate and cocoa, guaran paste, kola nuts, diet pills, appetite suppressants, pain relievers (especially migraine relief, like Excedrin).
- NOTE: if you eliminate caffeine, do it slowly. Take 7-10 days to wean off.
Limes, oranges, grapefruit, pomelo, lemons, kumquats, lemon or lime zest.
AKA citric acid (although citric acid is often made from corn since real citric acid from actual citrus is expensive. Your best bet is to call the manufacturer or just avoid the product).
Found in: Juice, juice blends, salad dressings, marinades, baked goods, vitamin C supplements, candies/sweets.
On top of anything with the word corn (including popcorn, corn flakes, corn meal, corn solids and corn alcohol) you also have to watch out for a variety of names that can disguise corn.
AKA: Citric acid, corn gluten, cornstarch/vegetable starch, corn syrup/fructose/high fructose corn syrup, dextrin/dextrose, maltodextrin, hydrol, treacle, ethanol, free fatty acids, maize, zein, sorbitol.
Found in: just about everything. Really. Read labels carefully.
- NOTE: I spoke to a food scientist with a tomato sauce company that sometimes used citric acid made from corn. He told me that it was processed to the point that there was virtually nothing resembling corn left in it. He then told me if his child had a corn allergy, he would have no problem letting them eat citric acid from corn. He also said he couldn’t actually give me this advice as it was a liability.
- NOTE: Around Passover, corn free versions of products that usually contain corn can be found.
You won’t find this on the nutrition label or in the ingredients list. Instead, look for ingredients that may be high in tyramine. Tyramine is generally found in aged foods and drinks.
Cheeses: Cheddar, Stilton, Camembert, Swiss, blue cheese, other aged cheeses.
Meats: Mortadella and other dried sausages, salami, aged beef, smoked/pickled fish (lox, caviar), liver, smoked sausage, meats, poultry, summer sausage, bouillon,
OTHER: fava/broad beans, tofu, miso, cocoa, soy sauce, bananas, prunes, raisins, dried fruit, kimchi/sauerkraut, yeast vitamin supplements, including vegemite and marmite, wines, wine vinegars, draught beer (and bottled, but to a lesser extent). If you see any of these on the label, chances are you’re looking a a high tyramine food.
- NOTE: Store foods in the fridge or freezer. Storing at room temperature increases tyramine production. Refrigeration reduces, but doesn’t stop, tyramine production. Use refrigerated foods within 24 hours.
Found in potatoes, (especially in the peels and when green or starting to sprout), tomatoes, peppers (bell peppers, chili peppers, including pimentos) pepper seasonings (paprika, chili powder, some curry powders, and cayenne pepper), eggplant, cherries, apples and tobacco products.
- NOTE: It can take 2-6 months for solanine to flush out of your system.
Barley, (barley flour, barley flakes, etc), wheat (wheat flour, wheat starch, wheat germ, wheat bran, durum, semolina, bulgur wheat, graham flour, seitan & tempeh (made from wheat), farina, aka, cream of wheat), malt (usually made from barley, includes malt syrup, malt vinegar, malted milk, malt extract), rye all contain gluten. Also use caution with hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch/vegetable starch.
- NOTE: farro, spelt, kamut, einkorn, emmer, and triticale are all kinds of wheat
- NOTE: Oats are naturally gluten free but are often grown near, packaged and/or stored with wheat, resulting in cross-contamination, so look for gluten free oats.
- NOTE: Brewer’s yeast may contain gluten if it is the byproduct of beer brewing. However, the supplement can be made from the beer byproduct or from sugar. Brewer's yeast made from sugar is gluten free. Your best bet? Call the manufacturer.
- NOTE: Only wheat and its derivatives are required to be listed on the label, other gluten containing grains are not.
Found in: breads, crackers, soy sauce, beer, noodles/pasta, seitan, soups, cereals, tortillas, couscous, wraps, vital wheat gluten, etc. (Here’s a list of Gluten Free Grains).
Sugar goes by 61 different names, which is madness. Many of them contain the word “sugar”, which makes them easier to spot. But some of them are much trickier.
Here are some of the trickier names for sugar, according to the University of California San Francisco:
This includes sugar alcohols like sorbitol, erythritol, mannitol, xylitol and isomalt
Artificial Sweeteners like Aspartame (known as Equal or NutraSweet, among others), saccharin (Sweet N Low, and many others) and sucralose (Splenda) are the big ones, but others include stevia, acesulfame-K and neotame.
Found in: chewing gum, diet sodas, “no sugar added” or “sugar free” candies and cookies, processed sweets.
AKA: Casein, caseinates, protein hydrolysate, whey, butter.
Found in: Caramels, carob/carob candies, custard, milk and semisweet chocolate, lactalbumin, goats milk, nougat, cheese, yogurt, pudding, buttermilk, buttermilk powder, quark, cream/sour cream, ghee, diet products, bodybuilding products, protein bars and protein shakes. Also beware of natural flavoring, caramel flavoring.
Remember, milk, dairy and their derivatives are required to be listed on the label.
- NOTE: Non-dairy products, like non-dairy creamer, can contain casein, a milk protein. Be sure to read ingredient labels and not simply take the label at face value.
Found in sauces (like mole, enchilada) nougat, marzipan, candies, chocolate, ethnic food (egg rolls, Asian foods, African foods, Mexican foods), hydrolyzed plant/vegetable protein, cheesecake crusts/crumb toppings, pet food, natural flavoring. Peanuts and their derivatives are required to be listed on the label.
- NOTE: Lupine- although not a peanut (and thus not bound by labeling laws that say peanuts must be declared), lupine is a legume and if peanuts trigger a reaction, these may as well.
Also found as: Albumin/albuminate, apovitellin, avidin, flavoprotein, globulin, lysozyme, livetin, ovalbuman, ovogycoprotin, ovomucin, ovomucoid, ovomuxoid.
Found in: Pasta, baked goods, eggnog, sirimi, béarnaise/hollandaise sauce, egg beaters (and other egg substitutes/imitation egg products), mayonnaise and meringue.
Eggs and their derivatives are required to be listed on the label.
Also known as: Edamame (soybeans in pods), hydrolyzed soy/plant protein, soy albumin, soy concentrate, soy fiber, soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soya, soy beans, soy lecithin
Found in: Bean curd, kinako, miso, natto, shoyu/soy sauce/tamari, soy nut butter, soy nuts, soy milk, tempeh, teriyaki sauce, textured soy protein (TSP), textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu and sometimes vegetable broth, natural flavoring, vegetable gums/starches. Soy and its derivatives are required to be listed on the label.
Not sure if you should avoid these foods? Learn more about food sensitivities and which foods you should be avoiding here.