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If you are what you eat, as the saying goes, reading the ingredient list on packaged foods can give you pause.

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.

"Ingredient lists are a good way to know exactly what packaged food contains," says Christine A. Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at Georgia State University. "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

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.

"If that's an item you only eat now and then, you don't need to worry," says Rosenbloom. "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.

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Follow these ordering tips to ensure you eat healthfully when you dine out.
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