How to Read Food Labels the Paleo Way

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Last Updated on January 2, 2024


How to Read Food Labels the Paleo Way

Even though you know that the Paleo diet includes very few processed foods, it can be tempting in our busy world to simply assume that foods labeled as “all-natural,” “gluten free” or even “Paleo diet friendly” are “safe.” This temptation can easily escalate as a direct result of the sheer availability of “safe” packaged foods, as the Paleo diet gains popularity. Food manufacturers have jumped on the gravy train (pun intended) by adding erroneous labels that state that their processed foods are Paleo-diet friendly.  It may seem easier to trust vague labeling on food packages, since our schedules are already so busy, but doing that can cause health issues that definitely don’t make life easier!

But let’s face it: food labels are confusing. Food manufacturers have gotten sneaky at naming various ingredients so that we consumers make assumptions about food tolerability or throw our hands up in despair. When looking at food labels, short and sweet are words to live by. Typically, if the list of ingredients in a prepared food is short, there are fewer byproducts and more real food. As an overall rule of thumb, you may decide on the oversimplified theory, “If I can’t pronounce it, I won’t buy it.”

But fear not! This guide “How to Read Food Labels the Paleo Way”, while not inclusive, is a great way to ensure you are purchasing Paleo-friendly foods with as little fuss as possible. With a bit of education, you can ensure that you aren’t tricked by food labels.

Before we jump into the guide, I do want to share that in January 2006 the FDA food allergen labeling law that went into effect that states that if a product contains wheat must be shown on the label.  I personally do not think that products derived from wheat are Paleo, even if they do not contain gluten. So, some of these items below are considered safe for the Gluten-free diet even though they are not Paleo.

Wheat—How many names can there possibly be for this non-Paleo food item? More than you would think! Be on the lookout for these alternative names.

  • Artificial flavoring
  • Bleached flour
  • Caramel color
  • Dextrin
  • Flavorings
  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Hydrolyzed wheat starch
  • Malt
  • Modified food starch
  • Natural flavoring
  • Seasonings
  • Vegetable protein
  • Vegetable starch
  • Wheat germ oil

Gluten has become ubiquitous in our food sources as wheat and other grains that contain gluten are a common ingredient for many processed foods. So, let’s consider some foods that you may not have imagined might contain gluten:

  • Bacon
  • Beer
  • Breading or coating mixes
  • Condiments
  • Couscous
  • French fries
  • Gravy
  • Ice cream
  • Lunch meats
  • Medications (both prescribed and over-the-counter)
  • Nutritional or herbal supplements
  • Processed cereals
  • Sauces
  • Soups
  • Soy or rice drinks
  • Spice mixes
  • Syrup

Sugars—since our bodies recognize even natural types of sugar as processed sugar, it’s imperative to be aware of all of the ways it can be disguised on food labels. Food manufacturers commonly add more than one of these variations of sugar into foods that you might not consider sweet. Be on the lookout for the names on this list while shopping:

  • Agave
  • Caramel
  • Dextrin
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Galactose
  • Glucose
  • Honey
  • Inulin
  • Jiggery
  • Lactose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Monk fruit
  • Natural coloring
  • Panela
  • Panocha
  • Rapadura
  • Rice bran syrup
  • Rice syrup
  • Saccharose
  • Sorghum
  • Sucanat
  • Sucrose
  • Treacle
  • Xylose

Soy—Since many people consider soy to be healthy, it has become a standard in the food preparation of processed foods. In fact, just a few years ago, products containing soy were hot-ticket items for those looking to eat healthier. Two of the most commonly used soy byproducts are soy protein and soy lecithin, but the list below details other items that should be avoided when on a Paleo diet:

  • Artificial flavoring
  • Bean curd
  • Bean sprouts
  • Edamame
  • Kinako
  • Miso
  • Natto
  • Natural flavoring
  • Nemame
  • Okara
  • Shoyu
  • Soya
  • Tamari
  • Tempeh
  • Textured vegetable protein
  • Tofu
  • Vegetable gum or starch
  • Yuba

The following foods often include soy, so be especially vigilant at reading the labels when looking to purchase them:

  • Energy or nutrition bars
  • Asian foods
  • Baked goods and mixes
  • Bouillon cubes
  • Chicken processed in chicken broth
  • Deli meats
  • Pre-made, processed meats
  • Vitamins
  • Peanut butters and peanut butter substitutes
  • Protein powders
  • Vegetarian meat substitutes
  • Vegetable broth
  • Mayonnaise
  • Margarine
  • Soy milk
  • Vegan cheese
  • Vegan ice cream
  • Candy
  • Cereal
  • Chicken broth

Corn—Because the U.S. produces a huge amount of corn, it has become a staple in our food production, specifically in processed, packaged foods. The best way to avoid corn byproducts is simply to stay away from packaged foods as a general rule, but this list will aid you in becoming more aware of what innocent-looking products might include corn that you might be sensitive to:

  • Artificial flavorings
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Astaxanthin
  • Baking powder
  • Barley malt
  • Calcium citrate
  • Calcium fumarate
  • Calcium gluconate
  • Calcium lactate
  • Calcium magnesium acetate
  • Calcium stearate
  • Calcium stearoyl lactylate
  • Caramel and caramel coloring
  • Citric acid
  • Dextrin
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Ethanol
  • Flavorings
  • Food starch and modified food starch
  • Fumaric acid
  • Inositol
  • Lactate
  • Lecithin
  • Linoleic acid
  • Lysine
  • Magnesium fumarate
  • Maize
  • Malic acid
  • Malt and malt extract
  • Maltodextrin
  • Maltol
  • Margarine
  • Modified cellulose gum
  • Molasses
  • Polenta
  • Potassium citrate
  • Potassium fumarate
  • Potassium gluconate
  • Sorbitol
  • Sorghum
  • Stearic acid
  • Vanilla extract
  • Vanilla flavoring
  • Vinyl acetate
  • Vitamins C and E
  • Xanthan gum
  • Xylitol
  • Yeast


Dairy—Even dairy can be tricky to spot when reading food labels. Here are some guidelines to follow while avoiding dairy on your Paleo diet:

  • Anything with “milk” in the title, such as acidophilus milk, milk protein, and milk derivative (except of course coconut milk and other paleo-friendly nut-milks)
  • Anything with “butter” in the title, such as artificial butter, artificial butter flavor, or natural butter flavor
  • Anything with “casein” or “caseinates” in the title, such as ammonium caseinate, hydrolyzed casein, and sodium caseinate
  • Anything with “cheese” in the title, such as natural or artificial cheese flavor, imitation cheese flavor, or vegetarian cheese with casein
  • Anything with “hydrolysates” in the title, such as protein hydrolysates, whey hydrolysates or whey protein hydrolysates
  • Curds
  • Custard
  • Galactose
  • Half and half
  • Lactalbumin or lactalbumin phosphate
  • Lactate solids
  • Lactitol monohydrate
  • Lactoglobulin
  • lactose
  • Lactulose
  • Nisin preparation
  • Nougat
  • Pudding
  • Sherbet
  • Simplesse
  • Sour cream
  • Whey
  • Yogurt

As a final word, it’s always a good thing to remember that not everyone is following the same Paleo diet. Just as with everything else in life, some people are, and need to be due to their sensitivity, stricter with their diet. Others are mostly concerned about avoiding a few of the non-Paleo foods above. Because of this, it’s important to understand how the ingredients are listed on food labels.

The ingredients listed at the top of the label are in the largest proportion in the product, while the foods listed towards the end are present in a smaller quantity. Knowing this will help you determine what foods are safer for you, based on your sensitivity.

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