Eating Well

comments on "Label Reading" for People on The Spectrum

What This Is

A direct logical approach is ideal for people on The Spectrum interested in food health and quality issues.

This is part of a list of miscellaneous adaptations and accommodations that are useful for people on the autism spectrum. As is the case with NTs, obesity and food-related health problems are an issue with us. As a further complication, people on the Spectrum may be particularly sensitive to certain food additives.

"The Spectrum" generally means the autism Spectrum, including Asperger's syndrome, HFA, PDD, Kanner's autism, and other autism spectrum conditions. Many of us are comfortable with the generic reference of "autistic".
If this looks like a "how to read labels" article, it's because that model seems ideally suited to the autistic approach to things -- if it's logical and there's enough information, the rest will follow, at least to some extent.
It is apparent that a lot of NTs also find "label reading" to be a convenient method of shopping. The tremendous success of businesses such as Whole Foods (US) indicates that this is a common approach, at least among the more highly educated demographic groups.
(Consumer awareness of ingredients has been a part of the food industry since at least the 1920's. An example is an old magazine advertisement by Heinz Company, promoting "57 Varieties, all with no sodium benzoate.)


Good diet is really easy, in that the effort is mostly in information gathering and being a little selective.

In the case of food and diet, there are of course cravings (e.g., chocolate, sweets and associated textures) but those are a limited factor in the overall diet.


The habit of reading labels.

The listings on the label are there for a reason. Label reading makes it easier to purchase better quality and healthier foods, at better economic value.

Once you get used to what to expect on the labels, they're much easier to read. Ingredients are easiest to read in reverse order because the additives usually show up at the end of the list.

You will of course become familiar with particular brands and therefore will be able to "grab" good quality items from the shelf without reading each time.

The act of reading a label or knowing (generally) about a food product suggests knowledge and reasoned thinking.

Avoiding health-detrimental items

trans fats

These are mostly "hydrogenated" oils; including margarine.

Trans fats are difficult for the body to metabolize and therefore are implicated in high serum cholesterol and arteriosclerosis. The problems with metabolism has implications regarding obesity and fatty tissue cancer (e.g., breast cancer).

There is a concerted effort, presumably by parts of the food industry, to suppress objections to additive trans fats. This includes:
Direct mininformation

Obfuscating the trans fat issue by restricting discussion of trans fats to general cholesterol discussions.
- the implication being that the task of consumer avoidance of trans fats is formidible. (It is actually easier because it's easy to identify items which potentially include trans fats.)
Obfuscation of this type is generally a strong indication of intentional BS by clouding the issue.

Attempts to confuse the issues of added trans fats with naturally-occurring trans fats, for example those occurring in dairy products.

- the implication being that these are the same thing. Since trans fats are a metabolism issue, it's likely that naturally-occurring trans fats affect the body differently. Specifically, it is highly probable that humans can readily metabolize any trans fats present in milk (as opposed to a trans fat manufactured in an oleomargarine refinery).

Use of per serving limits to avoid listing percentages of trans fats (It remains possible to review the ingredients for hydrogenated fats. It is not uncommon to see US labels list "0 g" trans fats but include such ingredients as "partially hydrogenated oil".)

Encouraging removal of information relating to trans fat from relevant information sources
This is especially pernicious. By way of example, some (probably most) types of breast cancers are fatty tissue malignancies; yet information on trans fats is notably absent from the information available from at least one prominent breast cancer organization in the US. Since trans fats are linked to malignancies of fatty tissues, one would expect to see the issue at least addressed publicly.

Why Trans Fats are Used

For the most part, it's a cost issue. It is more difficult to cook without solidifying fats. An individual will simply use butter (sometimes olive oil), but in mass production this becomes a cost factor. There is an economic disincentive when trying to produce food for a few cents per unit. In the case of deep fat frying (fryolators in fast food restaurants), polyunsaturated fats, when mixed with foodstuff such as starch, decompose over time. Monounsaturated fats don't have this problem but tend to be too costly (olive oil) or have allergins (peanut oil).

Nevertheless, trans fats are avoided by one grocery chain (Whole Foods) and are limited by law in some places. As of this writing, Denmark restricts trans fats and Israel and Canada are considering restrictions as well.

If Whole Foods can do it, so can others. This suggests a bias in large parts of the food industry against making changes for health purposes.

Where Trans Fats are Found

  1. Baked goods and pasteries
  2. Deep fat fried foods
  3. Commercially processed foods which use added fats
    and the obvious
  4. Margarine (and unidentified spreads)
    "I believe it's not butter." - Patty Larkin
  5. "Hydrogenated" oils
fructose (sugar content consisting mostly of fructose)
Fructose is metabolized as sugar but does not stimulate the body to increase energy use. This associated with the high levels of obesity which have increased since the widespread use of high fructose sugars.

Artificial Saccharides (sweeteners)
This is in part an autism issue since these are inadequitely tested on people on The Spectrum. As to diet and metabolism, these are not substitutes for sugar in the sense that they do not promote weight loss.
Excitotoxins - Aspertaime and MSG.
Excitotoxins are flavour-enhancing drugs (or are on the borderline between "drugs" and "enhancers", depending on definition). (MSG has no significant flavour by itself, but is used with salt and other substances as a flavour stimulant. Aspertaime, as an artifical saccaride has flavour.)

Mixing excitotoxins with driving or operating heavy machinery is probably risky. So if you stop for Chinese food while you're driving your D-9 Cat, ask for a regular Coke and "no MSG".

The effects of MSG vary with the individual. I had not heard of MSG being specifically an autism issue.

The effects of aspertaime on autistics is not documented. In general, it's best to avoid these substances.

More seriously, I noticed a large truckstop chain, when test marketing selling Chinese food, prominently displayed "No MSG". Since long haul truckers are typically not more cosmopolitan than urban diners, I was puzzled. Then I realized -- they have to drive long distances, at which time they don't want a "dose" of MSG.

Aspertaime is easy enough to identify -- it is labeled.

MSG is not always properly labeled. Look for items such as "hydrolyzed protein" and "autoized yeast". MSG is often mislabeled as "flavouring".


Artificial flavours

Artificial food dyes
The upshot of this is that it becomes a lot easier to determine quality in packaged foods.

Being "Choosy"

This is the "automatic" outcome of Label Reading, as far as providing results in terms of better eating habits

Become "choosy" about food items which aren't beneficial. If, for example, you don't especially like a type of cake, don't bother eating it just because it's offered. This becomes an easy part of maintaining a good diet.

Part of "being choosy" is to indulge in things that should be limited in a manner which is self-limiting. If you only consume what you really like, you will automatically limit your consumption of foods which have an adverse health impact.

How to Approach this Politely

Healthy eating sometimes becomes inconvenient as far as social grace is concerned. This varies with the culture, but fortunately medical (and quasi-medical) dietary regimens are quite common.

While general food refusals may be impolite in some circumstances, that generally isn't the case with items extra items such as (in this example) cakes. In part, it is common for people to decline certain foods, and in part, the refusal of the food does not interfere with the social interaction.

It is good manners to avoid making a fuss over declining food. Try to be low-keyed about it, especially in one-off instances. It is socially acceptable to refuse food based on a dietary requirement. In doing so, it is necessary to define it as such. The idea is to place the requirement closer to the category of "allergies" as opposed to "personal preference". Good descriptions:

required because I need to limit certain ___
supposed to avoid/been told to avoid ___ (This is sometimes relevant if you've disclosed autism to the person you're speaking with, provided it doesn't encourage further disclosure.)
sensitive to ___
The closer it sounds like a third party (e.g. medical) requirement, the easier it is to avoid.

Try to work out food issues in advance of a dinner, e.g., with a phone call. If nothing else, you will be prepared or know to avoid a particular place or event.

Once stated, it's best to downplay a food preference and avoid the lifestyle equivalent of proselyzation. A preference is not a "badge" to identify oneself with unless you happen to be in the food industry.

Personal situations are of course different. One would expect a close friend or partner to understand one's personal choices and accept those choices. It's often acceptable to criticise a particular product or business, especially if you are not presently a patron. Avoid criticism if the business is part of your being a guest.

Is it Real or Imagined?

Or rephrased, "Is a sensitivity Physical or Psychological?"

Except for analeptic shock, it is both. If something causes an unpleasant reaction, the body's response is to regard the item as unsuitable. It's a natural defense mechanism. It is not even necessary to make a conscious determination of the adverse effect.

Example: I would give my dog pills by hiding the bitter ones in cheese. One regimen of antibiotics made him nauseous. He stopped eating cheese until he accepted the fact that cheese no longer made him nauseous.
moral: Don't eat cheese if it makes you nauseous. Especially if you're a dog.
At the other end, a psychological adversion will result in physical discomfort. Adverse reaction to cigarette smoke is an example of this, in which psychological adversion to smoke increases the physical discomfort. (The ability of smokers to tolerate smoke is probably a better example!)

It can be seen that there is no meaningful boundary between physical and psychological sensitivities -- they are both part of the body's defense mechanism.

Expect to Answer Questions

If you come across as being aware of some food issues, you may be asked questions about particular things. As with any technical knowledge, it's best to limit the response in a way that distinguishes specific knowledge from personal belief without solid knowledge. That way people can more easily distinguish specific knowledge from opinion or general knowledge, and perhaps respect both. Often this means only giving measured responses.

In this regard, be prepared to refuse answers in appropriate circumstances. People with differeing opinions will often raise objections in the form of questions. You do not need to automatically defend your personal preferences if you choose not to.

This is linked to pages on relationships and autistics, and relates to the ability of autistics to establish intimate relationships.

The myth of lack of empathy has been used as some sort of justification for abuse of people on the Spectrum

back to Relationships index

First posted 11-Jan-03. Last revised 25 Dec 07.

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