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What to Look Out For on Ingredient Lists (From a Registered Dietitian)

In today's world of bustling grocery store aisles and endless options, deciphering the language of food labels can feel like navigating a maze. (Reading nutrition facts can be just as hard, so we made this post on How To Read Nutrition Facts, too.) But once you understand how to read them, the long ingredient lists and plethora of numbers can be and feel much simpler, allowing you to make informed choices that support your health and well-being…without stress or fear. 



THE BACK OF THE BOX - Ingredients & Nutrition Facts

Or bottle, jug, package, bag…you get it!



White Nutrition Facts Label on cereal box
Nutrition Fact Label


On any packaged food, at least in the US, you will find two things: an Ingredient Label, and a Nutrition Panel. 

The Ingredient Label is a list of all of the components within the food; it’s a series of words, usually many of which you may not be able to pronounce (more on that later). The Nutrition Panel, on the other hand, is the black & white table that specifies the exact types & amounts of nutrients - like calories, proteins, and sugars- in the food. I’m sure you’ve seen both of these things, but maybe you’ve never been able to truly decipher all of the information on them. So, let’s get to it! 



Reading an Ingredient Label


At first glance, the ingredient label might seem like a jumble of unfamiliar words, crazy chemicals, and ingredients you can’t pronounce. And what are all of those words there for anyways? 


Let’s start with some basic facts about ingredient lists: 


  • Required by Law: Ingredient labels  are not optional; they're a legal requirement. This means that every packaged food item you encounter will have an ingredient list.

  • Order Matters: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first ingredient listed is the most abundant, while the last is present in the smallest amount.

  • Technical Names: The lists often have unrecognizable terms (well…unless you’re a chemist or dietitian!) The list will use the technical or chemical name of an ingredient rather than what it may be widely known as.


Now let’s break down the following ingredient list as an example:  


Ingredient List for a banana
Ingredient List

What do you think you just looked at? The ingredient list for...a sugary juice? A pre-packaged snack? An unhealthy breakfast bar? Well...if you guessed a simple banana, you would be correct!



bananas on a pink background


The DON’Ts of Reading Nutrition Labels


  • DON'T Be Afraid of Unfamiliar Words

Just because an ingredient has a long, technical name doesn't mean it's harmful. For example, scary-sounding names like "steviol glycosides” can deter someone from choosing a food, but steviol glycosides are derived from the stevia plant, which is a natural sweetener with used to sweeten food while reducing the impact on blood sugar levels. Or "sodium hydrogen carbonate," for example, is better known as baking soda.  And like "thiamine mononitrate" and "ascorbic acid" are simply vitamin B1 and vitamin C. These “scary” chemicals can actually be well-known, safe, & even health-supporting despite their names. Understanding the function of each ingredient can help alleviate any concerns and help us make informed decisions. 



  • DON'T fear Additives 


Anything added into a food has a specific purpose. Many times, additives are required to keep packaged foods safe and lengthen their shelf life. Additives like citric acid help extend the shelf life of different foods, and is actually derived originally from lemon juice.  You might also see names like Sodium benzoate or nisin, which do similar things. Without these types of additions to food, we would struggle to maintain our entire food distribution system with safe, non-expired foods. Another reason additives are included are to modify the texture, mouthfeel, or overall taste of foods, and can sometimes offer health benefits as well. Soy lecithin and xanthan gum are examples of this.


So no matter the purpose, additives are carefully regulated and can only be used in safe amounts, for a purpose. The USDA studies the doses of ingredients to understand what compounds are are safe to consume and at what levels, too.


While it’s important to focus on whole foods and a well-rounded diet first and foremost, we don’t need to fear ingredient lists.  



The Do's of Reading Nutrition Labels


  • DO Focus on the first ingredients on the list


Since ingredients are listed in order of weight, the first ingredients will be those that contribute most to the product. This will give you a good idea of what foods are made of.


  • DO Know Your Personal Needs 

One size does not fit all when it comes to nutrition. Understand your individual dietary requirements and pay attention to ingredients that may affect your health or well-being. Whether you have food allergies, intolerances, or specific nutritional goals - or just knowing how your body responds to specific ingredients- knowing what ingredients to look out for is crucial for making informed choices.


woman looking at an orange juice nutrition label



  • DO Learn the Buzzwords

SATURATED & OTHER ADDED FATS
SUGAR

SALT

SUGAR
ALCOHOLS
  • beef fat

  • butter

  • shortening

  • coconut

  • coconut oil

  • palm oil

  • copha

  • cream

  • dripping

  • lard

  • mayonnaise

  • sour cream

  • vegetable oils

  • vegetable fats

  • hydrogenated oils

  • full-cream milk powder

  • egg (cholesterol)

  • mono-, di- or triglycerides

  • brown sugar

  • corn syrup

  • deionised fruit juice

  • dextrose

  • disaccharides

  • fructose

  • fruit juice concentrate/fruit paste

  • glucose

  • golden syrup

  • honey

  • lactose

  • malt

  • maltose

  • mannitol

  • maple syrup

  • molasses

  • monosaccharides

  • raw sugar

  • sorbitol

  • sucrose

  • baking powder

  • booster

  • celery salt

  • garlic salt

  • sodium

  • meat or yeast extract

  • onion salt

  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)

  • rock salt

  • sea salt

  • seasoning

  • sodium bicarbonate

  • sodium metabisulphate

  • sodium nitrate/nitrite

  • stock cubes

  • mannitol

  • sorbitol

  • xylitol

  • lactitol

  • isomalt

  • maltitol

  • HSH (hydrogenated starch hydrolysates)


*Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that chemically have characteristics of both sugars and alcohols - Sugar alcohols are found naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables.




Focus on the Big Picture + Find What Works for You


While watching out for individual ingredients can be important in certain contexts, it's even more essential to zoom out and view your dietary patterns as a whole. Instead of fixating on minor details in your foods, consider the overall balance of your meals and snacks throughout the day or week. Are you incorporating a variety of nutrient-rich foods? Are your meals providing a good mix of macronutrients and micronutrients? By focusing on the big picture, you can ensure that your diet is balanced and nourishing, rather than getting bogged down by minor ingredients or additives.


Mastering the art of reading ingredient labels is a skill that can empower you to make healthier choices and take control of your nutrition. By knowing your personal needs and focusing on the overall balance of your diet, you can navigate the grocery aisles with confidence and create a diet that supports your health and well-being!






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