Reading the Ingredient Label: What to Look For

The ingredient list on package foods reveals some surprises.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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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.

Artificial Sweeteners, as in Sucralose, Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame

In moderation, these ingredients can cut down on calories in foods like yogurt and beverages. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that some artificial sweeteners can be dangerous in large quantities. Many nutritionists say it's best to consume artificial sweeteners in moderation.

"If you drink six cans of sugar-free soda a day, it might be wise to switch to sparkling water flavored with lemon and lime, for example," says Hark.

Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate in Food

Used as a preservative in meats, these chemicals may pose a cancer risk, although the evidence remains controversial. One recent study raised fears that nitrites and nitrates could interact with medications to damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends limiting the amount you consume by choosing nitrite-free products when possible.

Artificial Colorings in Food

These additives don't add nutrient value, and some research suggests that some colorings may pose health dangers, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The risk is admittedly small, however, and the evidence often inconclusive.

Artificial colorings are often found in cereals, candies, sodas, and snack foods, especially those marketed to children. They will be noted on the ingredients list by their color name, such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Orange B.

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Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in Food

Added to foods to enhance flavor, MSG has not been shown to pose a health risk, despite popular concerns about this additive. But some people do experience an unpleasant reaction, known as MSG symptom complex, which includes headache, flushing, sweating, fluttering heartbeat, and shortness of breath.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on October 20, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, University of Pennsylvania.

Christine A. Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition, Georgia State University.

American Heart Association: "Know Your Fats."

Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Food Additives."

FDA Backgrounder: "MSG," 1995.

Brambilla and Martelli, Mutation Research, January-February 2007; pp 17-52.

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