Nutrition Tips

Easy Tips to Understand the Ingredient List on Food Labels

Share This

By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

For better or worse, most of us do judge books by their covers. The same is true for food packages, which is why food manufacturers use clever front-of-the-box claims, such as “heart healthy,” “natural” and “low-fat.” They know busy consumers rely on these terms to guide food-buying decisions. Trouble is, many of those catch phrases come with a hitch: They don’t include the critical information detailed in the ingredient list.

While some ingredients may sound mysterious, you can get the whole story on a given food item by following a few do’s and don’ts:

DO’s:

  • Focus on what comes first, but look further down the list, too. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So if strawberries appear as the first ingredient in strawberry jam, it’s safe to say there are more strawberries in the jar than anything else. But here’s where it can get tricky. Many ingredient lists include multiple variations of the same ingredient. If you add them together, that ingredient could actually be the heaviest hitter. For example, just because a version of sugar isn’t listed first doesn’t mean sugar isn’t the number one or two ingredient in that food product. That brings us to our next tip…
  • Learn the buzzwords. Sugar, sodium and saturated and trans fats have a myriad of monikers. Sugar, for example, may appear as sugar, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, honey, molasses and a slew of words that end in “ose” (think glucose, fructose, maltose and galactose). Worried about sodium? Watchwords include salt, brine, baking soda, monosodium glutamate and sodium benzoate. Fat, too, has a few disguises, including lard, partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils, tallow and shortening.
  • Opt for products with short ingredient lists. While additives and preservatives may be necessary to make certain foods safe for consumption, shorter ingredient lists are easier to understand.

DON’Ts:

  • Don’t be afraid of unfamiliar words. Tempted to steer clear of amaranth, quinoa (keen-wah), farro and spelt because you don’t recognize them? It turns out all four are nutrient-rich whole grains that are surprisingly really good for you. Even long chemical-sounding names may have a worthy purpose. Steviol glycosides, for example, come from the naturally sweet stevia plant. Thiamine mononitrate is simply vitamin B1. And ascorbic acid is vitamin C. Other ingredients, including soy lecithin and xanthan gum, modify the texture and mouth feel of foods and offer some health benefits. (Lecithin is a fat that is essential for the cells of the body, and xanthan gum is used to lower cholesterol levels and as a laxative.)
  • Don’t be fooled by healthy-sounding ingredients. “Wheat flour,” “brown rice syrup” and “palm oil” are just a few ingredients that sound more honorable than they are. Wheat flour is simply white or all-purpose flour—and therefore almost completely lacking in nutrients (look for whole wheat flour instead). Brown rice syrup is an alias for added sugar. And palm oil is a plant-based oil that delivers a heavy hit of saturated fat.
  • Don’t buy into front-of-the-box claims. Just because a package boasts appealing qualities—think claims like “made with whole grains,” “zero trans fats,” “low-sodium” and “high fiber”—doesn’t mean it’s an all-around healthy food. To get the full scoop, read the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list.

Worried about food allergies? By law, the manufacturers have to let you know if any of these allergens are included in their product:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts and pecans
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Soy
  • Wheat

Recently, we had a little fun asking kids to help identify some mysterious sounding items on an ingredient list. Check out our latest Kids & Diabetes video: Star Wars character or Twinkie ingredient?

For more information on nutrition and healthy eating, visit our EatWell section.

Written By:

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN

Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in exercise science from Oakland University (OU), Beth chose her career path because she was always intrigued by the blending of art and science to positively impact health. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth was named as Outstanding Dietitian of the Year by the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012 and served as their president in 2015-2016. If she could spend a week anywhere in the world, she would visit the Lake Michigan side of the Leelanau peninsula.

62 articles