The Migraineur’s Quick Guide to Reading Food Labels

Last week on 1% Thursday I told you we were going to talk a little more about reading food labels.  I also said that this could have a major impact on your health – especially if it’s something you’ve never really taken the time to do before.

So today we’re going to look at 8 guidelines to help you be a better food label reader.  Though I said these are for the migraineur, they should also be generally useful for anyone with cluster or chronic headache.

First, there are some things you need to know, if you don’t already.  Food labels are not clear, accurate fountains of information.  Sometimes they’re very well done, other times they’re downright deceptive.  Yes, even in this day and age.  Food manufacturers are not required to list every detail of what’s in their food.  You need to realize that.  And though there are loose regulations, there’s a lot of leeway – caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) is the real rule, just as it always has been.

And one more thing, before we begin.  This is not a defense of why certain foods are good or bad for you.  We’ve talked about that before, and will again.  Today we’re just talking about finding those foods…

Frozen foods

The Migraineur’s 8 Rules for Reading Food Labels

Follow these rules by reading the label carefully, especially the ingredients…

  1. Taglines: Taglines are those many advertising type words on the label that mean… almost nothing.  "lite" for example.  Meaning… light flavour?  Less of it?  That’s a brand name?  Also could include things like "all natural".  "multigrain flavour".  even "whole grain".  And that ridiculous "real fruit" claim.  And let’s make one thing clear – "natural flavor" is not necessarily any better than "artificial flavor".  Don’t waste your time with all these.  Skip.  Most often they’re almost meaningless.  You’ll find the real information elsewhere.
  2. Number of ingredients:  A general rule of thumb – the longer the list of ingredients, the greater the chance there’s stuff in there you don’t want in your body.  If you want to make a quick decision, watch out for lists that will take you a half hour to read.
  3. Order of ingredients:  Hopefully most of you know this, but generally speaking if something is earlier in the list there’s more of it.  I hate to pick on "whole grain", but it drives me crazy how often something claims to be whole grain and then lists something like "white flour" or "enriched wheat flour" first.  I’m looking at the label of some popular whole wheat crackers now – enriched flour is the number 1 ingredient.  There’s no way to know how much whole wheat flour they added to make the crackers whole wheat, but there’s more white flour than whole wheat.  Fail.
  4. Great-Grandma Rule:  If you’re Great-Grandma wouldn’t recognize the ingredient, chances are it’s not good for you.  This goes hand in hand with the how-do-you-pronounce-that rule and the what-plant-does-that-come-from rule.
  5. Et cetera:  As I mentioned, food manufacturers don’t have to list every detail.  In fact, some packages can claim to have 0 (zero) of something, and in reality have a small amount (can you say trans fat?)  Sometimes, though, key ingredients are hidden under phrases such as "natural flavours", "spices" and the like.  Hidden in there can be ingredients that could trigger your migraine attack.  Watch out for the et ceteras!
  6. No really, it’s healthy:  If a food makes health claims, chances are it’s less healthy.  What??  Why is that?!  Here’s what happens.  A natural food is taken, and things are taken out so that it can be preserved, shipped, made a nicer colour, whatever.  Then all the experts try to add back in some health benefits.  But all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.  The fact it, you’ll find that almost every time the original food has the solid, healthy balance that we’re only starting to understand.  If we don’t even understand yet why food is healthy, how can we expect to "manufacture" something better?  Claims of health benefits usually mean that it’s a cheap imitation of a whole food which would be 100x better for you.
  7. Whole foods:  Are there issues with buying whole foods?  You bet.  But after all this stress reading food labels, you’ll find that almost every time you’d be better buying a food with just 1 (one) ingredient.  You know, like an apple.  Brown rice.  Spinach.  They don’t have the advertising budget to make the pretty ads and put all the health claims on the label.  But they’re amazingly healthy, and the labels will cause you a lot less of a headache.
  8. Watch for triggers:  There are some ingredients to specifically watch for, yes.  Now there are literally hundreds of ingredients you could try to learn – I’m trying to simplify things with the above rules and by encouraging you to buy more whole foods.  But if you must buy foods with long ingredients lists, common migraine triggers include:  anything related to MSG (monosodium glutamate, hydrolized or autolized (anything), malt extract, gelatin, glutamate, yeast extract/food/nutrient, sodium caseinate, textured protein, anything that says natural or artificial flavourings or spices, and more…), artificial sweeteners (such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, neotame, acesulfame potassium, and nutrasweet), yeast (especially if it’s fresh), alcohol, white flours (including enriched flour) and sugars (including high fructose corn syrup), nitrates, nitrites – and many more.

I didn’t list the many other ingredients that are harmful or at least controversial, such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, BHA and BHT, food colouring, and so on.  The list could be huge – and that’s the problem.

Want to make it easy on yourself?  Start with Rule 7.  Then move to Rule 2,3 and 4 if you must.  After that, it gets more complicated, as you can see – and we like simple.

shopping cart - ready to read those food labels?

Remember that there are other issues related to migraine triggers besides certain chemicals in foods (which I focused on here).  More on migraine and food here.

Some of these ideas, particularly Rules 4 and 6, were passed on by Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food.  If you’re really ready to move your eating habits to the next level, and want to understand how the food in the grocery store got to where it is today, and especially why Rule 6 is so strangely true, I recommend it to your consideration.

Now, go do your grocery shopping – and see open your eyes to what you’re really buying.

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13 comments… add one
  • Megan Oct 22, 2009

    I find this food article very helpful. Thank you for posting it.
    I get migraines often and I never think that what I’m eating could be the cause.

  • James Oct 29, 2009

    Thanks, Megan! You may find this article on the migraine diet approach helpful as well.

  • Megan Nov 1, 2009

    Thank you very much James!

  • Christine Jan 6, 2012

    GREAT article – thanks James! I wanted to share 2 things i have found:
    1. Soy give me migraines (soy sauce), and my doctor pointed out once that there is soy in PEANUT BUTTER!! I had no idea, I thought it was the peanuts giving me the migraines! (As I loooove peanut butter 🙂 But once I switched to the all natural peanut butters – no more migraines from peanut butter! (look on the labels – no soy! JUST peanuts!!)
    2. Be very wary of anything marked “Low-Carb” or something similar. I get extreme digestive complications from artificial sweeteners, and once bought “Low Carb” whole grain MUFFINS, thinking oh how healthy, only to get VERY sick, and I glanced at the ingredients – SUCRALOSE! (Splenda) Seriously, fake sugar in MUFFINS??!!

    I am sure I look like a mad woman sometimes in the grocery store, reading labels of everything I pick up, but you can never be too sure, so I always check! Better safe than sorry!

  • Lynne Apr 30, 2012

    I found this article to be pretty helpful, but I need to point out that stevia is not an artificial sweetener. I had a friend who used to grow stevia and dry it. We’d crumble the leaves into our tea instead of using sugar or honey. That’s about as non-processed as it can get.

    • James May 1, 2012

      Hi Lynne,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m going to take stevia off the list for now, but it should be noted that products sold with “stevia” are not the whole-leaf stevia you’re talking about. Usually it’s a highly-refined extract – just some of the sweet stuff taken out of the leaf. So “natural” or “artificial” could be a matter of debate when it comes to some of the products using “stevia”.

  • Connie May 1, 2012

    What helped me the most with migranes watching what I eat. You even have to watch the supplements that you take. I have to take B and E supplements because of my diet. It took me a week to figure out that my new different brand vitamin B pills were causing me to have migranes. A couple of weeks ago I had 3 days of intense migrane headaches and I finally decided it was the weather. All 3 days were very stormy and we had tornado activity around us those 3 days.

  • Melissa May 1, 2012

    This list is a great reminder of how hard it is to buy pre-made foods without triggers. Having at least 4 identified triggers, and many still unknown plus food allergies/sensitivities, it is really hard to buy anything pre-made. It would be so much better if food manufacturers had to list what is really in the foods they make. I used to be able to read the allergy warnings to find safe foods, until I found that they don’t have to give the soy warning if they use soy lecithin or soybean oil. When I contacted the maker of a cereal they told me they didn’t have to put the warning because “nobody has a problem with soybean oil or soy lecithin” (I do for both). I decided that pre-made foods are not allowed for me and now I buy the basics and make my own version of favorite foods.

    • Christine May 1, 2012

      Yes, I switched brands for one of my vitamins once (another brand was on sale) and unbeknownst to me the new brand used soybean oil in their vits. So I suffered w/ migraines for 2 straight weeks until I figured it out.

      • Melissa May 1, 2012

        I have changed vitamin brands recently and never thought to see if they use soybean oil. Just checked all 3 of my vitamin bottles and no soybeans, but 1 has polysorbate 80 which I am allergic/sensitive to. I wonder if any of the wonderful sounding ingredients on the bottles are what is causing the increase in my migraines. Looking all of the ingredients up makes me want to throw them all out and not take any vitamins, thanks for the reminder that nothing is safe until I read the label.


  • Melissa May 1, 2012

    I forgot to mention that some name brand tuna fish also has soybeans in it. I found it listed on the label of solid water packed tuna fish, I don’t buy the brand any more so I don’t remember which one.

  • Tntiam Sep 29, 2014

    My first hemiplegic migraine started the day after the amines challenge on the rpah/failsafe diet we were doing for my son… Put me in hospital for 8 days.
    Amines and glutamates are huge triggers for me…
    Amines are in dark chocolate, ripe bananas, pork, bacon etc… They are naturally occurring food chemicals. I am very wary of them now.
    Just another area to be conscious of 🙂

  • Melissa Dec 2, 2014

    I just noticed that the major tuna brands are now injecting vegetable broth into the tuna. I am assuming it’s to get less tuna into the can but keep the weight the same. Since onions are a trigger for me and are in vegetable broth I now have 2 reasons to avoid tuna.

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