Reading the Ingredient Label: What to Look For
The ingredient list on package foods reveals some surprises.
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
- 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 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
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
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
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.