How often do you read the ingredients labels on food or drink containers? I was never one to do this. I figured the front of the package told me all I needed to know – how many calories, low or no fat, all natural, made from whole grains, kid tested, mom approved, we’re good to go!
That was a mistake. It turns out that there is a lot to learn from the small print on the side of the box. The ingredient list might be a long list of complicated words, but once you know what to look for you’ll be a pro at making sense of it. You can then use that knowledge to make decisions about what you buy.
Don’t Stop at the Nutrition Facts
The Nutrition Facts contains a summary of the nutrient profile of the product, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. To find out exactly what was used to make what you are going to eat, you have to look at the ingredients. Something to note here is that even if trans fat is listed as zero percent in the Nutrient Facts, by law the product can still contain up to 0.5 gram of partially hydrogenated oils per serving! You’ll only discover this if you read the ingredients.
The Front of the Package is an Advertisement
It’s designed to sell a product. Take Wheaties for example. There is always a picture of a super-star athlete on the cover. It’s no secret, the goal of the Wheaties marketing campaign is to make kids (and maybe adults too!) believe that they will be great athletes too if they eat their Wheaties. This is how they sell more product.
Things get a whole lot trickier from here. What about juice bottles that show pictures of fruit on the front, but there is so little fruit juice actually in the product that it should be called ‘artificially flavored and colored sugar water’? I picked up a pack of Kool-Aid Jammers in the store the other day. The grape flavor had a picture of grapes on the front. Unfortunately, grapes were nowhere to be found in the ingredients. There was fruit juice, listed after high fructose corn syrup, but it was apple juice, not grape. Perhaps the grape flavor comes from the ‘artificial flavor’ ingredient.
Don’t let yourself get distracted by the health claims or any other advertising on the front of the box. Go right to the side and look at the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients. That is the only way you are going to tell which brand is right for you.
Order of Ingredients
Ingredients are always listed in the order of their amount in a food. The food is mostly made up of the ingredients that come first, and then the remainder of the ingredients in descending order. While all the ingredients matter, those first few are critical. If they aren’t good for you, look at other brands and try to choose another food that has healthier first ingredients.
How Many Ingredients are There?
You typically want to stay away from foods with long ingredient lists, especially if those ingredients are ones you don’t recognize. Long ingredient lists may mean that the food is highly processed or contains any number of artificial and potentially harmful ingredients. Ask yourself what the purpose is for all of those ingredients. How many things did they need to combine to create a certain taste, or enable the product to stay on a shelf for years?
Are the Ingredients in Your house?
If you were to make the same product at home, would you have those ingredients readily available? If you had to go to the store to pick them up, would you know where to go? I can’t tell you where to get partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil outside of a food processing plant. If I’m making chocolate chip cookies, that ingredient is surely not going to make it in. If I’m buying cookies for convenience, I don’t want it in them either. I was surprised to find this ingredient in Chips Ahoy!, but it’s in there. It comes right before high fructose corn syrup.
Two Ingredients to Run From
Speaking of partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup, any time you see these terms, it’s best to put the package down and find an alternative.
Any type of partially hydrogenated oil is trans fat. Fat comes in a lot of forms, some good and some bad. The worst of the bad is trans fat. It’s a type of fat made by scientists in a lab and added to your food to help it have a certain taste, or texture, or shelf life. While it’s good for manufacturers, it’s bad for humans as it has been linked to blood vessel and heart damage, among other health problems.
High fructose corn syrup is a complicated name for an artificial type of sugar. There is controversy over how it is digested and whether or not it does more damage than pure sugar. Many foods contain this ingredient because it is a cheap way for manufacturers to sweeten their products. Be aware that when you see this ingredient, it is sugar, plain and simple. Otherwise, you might be eating something with added sugar and not even know it.
The Whole Grain Game
When a product is advertised as ‘whole grain’ or ‘multi grain,’ the first word in the ingredient list should be ‘whole.’ ‘Enriched Flour’ or ‘Wheat Flour’ are fancy ways to say white flour, and potentially trick you into buying a product that you think is better for you than it actually is. Another test of the ‘whole grain’ goodness of a product is to look at the fiber content in the Nutrition Facts. You should see at least three grams of fiber per serving.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to read the ingredients label of everything you eat for one full day. Come back and share what you find!
Next Healthy ‘How To’: Navigating a Health Food Store