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Healthy tips for busy people. Get the skinny. Start feeling better.

Anatomy of the Ingredient List

Anatomy of the Ingredient List

by Becca Brannan, RN - April 24, 2014

How often do you look at the list of ingredients on the foods you buy? Geez… what do all those gigantic multi-syllable words mean? Is that granola bar really as healthy as you think it is? Are you really choosing low sodium and low sugar foods? Or are those ingredients hiding behind an unfamiliar-sounding name?

Do we need to go to spy school to crack the code on some of the ingredients listed on our favorite foods? Sometimes it feels that way! Here are some tips to help you navigate your way through the list.

The first thing to remember is ingredients are listed in order of quantity. But, that can be tricky! Sugar, fat and salt may be lurking throughout that list behind the cloak of secret words we are not familiar with. In truth, there very well could be more salt or sugar in a food than the oats that are listed first.

Don’t forget that you need to see the word “whole” before whatever type of grain is in the food, whether it be wheat, oats, rye, etc. When buying cereal, pasta and bread, this should be the first or second ingredient.

Beware of the added sugars! They are often hiding throughout the ingredient list. The manufacturer may use many different kinds of sugar, so it doesn’t have to be listed as one of the top ingredients. But if you add them all together, sugar may end up being the top ingredient after all.

Hiding places for sugar:

• Anything ending in “ose” – sucrose, fructose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, glucose, xylose
• Cane crystals, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, dehydrated cane juice
• Corn sweetener, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup
• Agave nectar, beet sugar, coconut sugar, palm sugar, fruit juice concentrate
• Honey, molasses, maple syrup, syrup, barley malt syrup, brown rice syrup
• Treacle, turbinado sugar, sorghum, sorghum syrup

Don’t forget the salt! Sodium also has its fair share of disguises. Keep an eye out for these aliases in the list of ingredients: sodium benzoate, disodium phosphate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), brine, sodium nitrate, sodium citrate, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfate and sodium caseinate.

We don’t want to overlook the fats. Your body needs fat to function, but you want to look for the healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated). As much as possible, you want to avoid saturated and trans fats. When looking at the ingredient list, these will be shrouded in the form of partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil.

Manufacturers are required to note if any ingredients belong to the eight most common allergens: milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.

It can seem overwhelming at times trying to decode what is good for us and what is loaded with preservatives and unhealthy fats. Can you guess what this food is based on the ingredients?

Enriched corn meal (corn meal, ferrous sulfate, niacin, thiamin, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), Vegetable Oil (corn, canola and/or sunflower oil), Cheese Seasoning (whey, cheddar cheese [milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes], canola oil, maltodextrin [made from corn], salt, whey protein concentrate, monosodium glutamate, natural and artificial flavors, lactic acid, citric acid, artificial color [yellow 6]), and Salt.

Now, what about this food?


Hmm… maybe we should stick with as many whole, unprocessed foods as we possibly can! You really are what you eat. The healthier and more nutritiously you eat, the better you will feel mentally and physically. So, what was your guess for the list of ingredients above?

Cheetos anyone???


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