Editor’s Note: Food label ingredients in our image do not necessarily illustrate all of the examples we cite below, but the image provides an idea of the type of ingredient information a consumer might find. Ingredients vary, of course, from product to product. Visit Food Facts for specific and non-biased information about the ingredients within the foods you are interested in.
The first place to start when you look at the label is the serving size and the number of servings in the package. Serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods; they are provided in familiar units, such as cups or pieces, followed by the metric amount, e.g., the number of grams.
Looking for sodium with Nutrition Facts on a food label is equally important. This number tells you how much sodium is in one serving. Choose foods with the lowest number for sodium. Or look for foods that say Low-Sodium or Sodium-Free.
Always remember that the Ingredient List is the most part of a Nutrition Label.
Reviewing an ingredients list is important, especially if your kids have food allergies. Reading food labels can be very revealing, but the hidden ingredients can fool you. It’s good to know that independent sources of non-biased objective information about the hidden ingredients within your foods exist, like Food Facts, which can be a tremendous asset to you.
The ingredient list can also help you to partially identify “hidden” ingredients, like added sugars (bad), whole grains (good), and trans fats (bad).
Foods with added sugars will list corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, etc. on their ingredient list. Other names for added sugars can include:
* brown sugar
* corn sweetener
* high-fructose corn syrup
* invert sugar
* malt syrup
* raw sugar
The ingredient list can also help you find foods made with whole grains, which are healthier and are preferred to refined grains. Whole grain foods should have one of the following whole grain ingredients listed as their first ingredient:
* whole wheat
* whole oats
* brown rice
* graham flour
* whole grain corn
* whole rye
* wild rice
On the other hand, a food is not made with whole grains if it is labeled with the words multi-grain, 100% wheat, seven-grain, stone-ground, bran, or cracked wheat.
Although the amount of trans fats isn’t yet listed on most food labels, making them hard to avoid, you can often identify that they are in a food if it lists ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ on the ingredient list.
If you are what you eat, as the saying goes, reading the ingredient list on packaged foods can give you pause.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils: Source of Trans Fats
Partially hydrogenated oils are the primary source of trans fats, which have been shown to be potentially more harmful to arteries than saturated fat.
Foods can call themselves “trans-fat free” even if they contain up to half a gram of trans fats per serving. Look on the ingredients list. If a food contains partially hydrogenated oils, it contains trans fats.
Some foods are laced with dozens of ingredients with complicated names that sound like they belong in a chemistry lab, not on your plate. Some list ingredients that belie the claims made on the front of the package. Consider just two examples:
* A food that trumpets itself as containing whole grains may have more sugar than grains.
* A food that promises to be trans fat free may in fact contain up to 0.5 grams of partially hydrogenated oils, a source of trans fats, in the ingredient list.
Nutrition experts point out that ingredient lists are a good way to know exactly what packaged food contains. But the first important thing to remember is that the ingredients are listed in descending order of predominance. The first two or three ingredients are the ones that matter most. Ingredients at the bottom of the list may appear in only very tiny amounts.
Here’s what the experts say to look for:
The Word “Whole” as in Whole Grains
Especially for breakfast cereals, crackers, pasta, and breads, the word “whole” should appear as the first or second ingredient, whether whole wheat, oats, rye, or another grain. One way to double-check is to look at the fiber content on the nutrition facts panel. Whole-grain foods should deliver at least 3 grams of fiber per serving and ideally even more, according to University of Pennsylvania family nutrition expert Lisa Hark, PhD, RD.
Hidden Sugars, as in Fructose, Sucrose, Dextrose
More and more packaged foods are sweetened with a baffling array of sugars, which add calories without boosting nutritional value. Ingredients that end in the word “ose” are all forms of sugar, as are honey and corn sweeteners.
A recent study at the University of California, Davis showed that these sweeteners had a similar metabolic effect to other forms of sugar. Still, all sweeteners add calories but few nutrients, and they can contribute to weight problems.
To know exactly how many grams of total sugar a product contains, check out the nutrient facts label. Four to 5 grams of sugar is the equivalent of a level teaspoon.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils: Source of Trans Fats
Experts believe that If that’s an item you only eat now and then, you don’t need to worry. But if it’s something you eat every day, it’s worth looking for a brand that doesn’t have partially hydrogenated oils. Be sure to look for balance. It doesn’t help your health to choose foods loaded with saturated fat in order to avoid a tiny amount of trans fat. The American Heart Association recommends choosing vegetable oils and margarines with liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, such as tub margarines, canola, corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower, and olive oils.