How to Decipher the Food Label of an Ingredient List

The food label can be a valuable tool in determining how healthy a food really is for you. But if you do not know what to look for or how to locate it on the packaging, it can become confusing very quickly.

Here’s What You Need to Know

The ingredients listed on a food label are listed in a descending order of predominance. To simplify, the ingredient that is listed first weighs the most in the product. And the last ingredient weighs the least. This will give you a better idea of what the product is predominately made up of, and it will give you a better understanding of how healthy the food actually is for you.

The first two or three ingredients are the ones that you should pay special attention to because they matter the most. These first ingredients are what the product is made up of. As the list descends the ingredients can appear in miniscule or trace amounts.

Example:

INGREDIENTS: WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR, UNBLEACHED ENRICHED WHEAT FLOUR [FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, REDUCED IRON, NIACIN, THIAMIN MONONITRATE (VITAMIN B1), RIBOFLAVIN (VITAMIN B2), FOLIC ACID], WATER, SUGAR, RYE, WHEAT GLUTEN, YEAST, SUNFLOWER SEEDS, GROUND CORN, NUTS (ALMONDS AND/OR WALNUTS), MOLASSES, SOYBEAN OIL, SALT WHOLE WHITE WHEAT, BROWN RICE, OATS, TRITICALE, MONOGLYCERIDES, BARLEY, FLAXSEED, MILLET, CALCIUM PROPIONATE (PRESERVATIVE), CALCIUM SULFATE, DATEM, GRAIN VINEGAR, CITRIC ACID, SOY LECITHIN, HAZELNUTS (FILBERTS), WHEY, SOY FLOUR, NONFAT MILK.

MANUFACTURED IN A FACILITY THAT USES WHEAT, SOY, MILK, EGGS, HAZELNUTS (FILBERTS), ALMONDS AND WALNUTS.

Whole Wheat Flour is the first ingredient listed on the ingredients label. The second is Unbleached Wheat Flour, but it has been “Enriched.” Next to this you will notice [Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Reduced Iron, Niacin, Thiamin Mononitrate (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Folic Acid]. This means that the Unbleached “Enriched” Whole Wheat Flour contains all of these ingredients. Inside the [brackets], you will notice (parenthesis). The name inside the parenthesis refers to the ingredient beside it as its common name. Riboflavin is also known as (Vitamin B2).

Allergens can be found listed inside the [brackets]. Allergens that are listed on the ingredient label can be noted in a darker print for emphasis, such as Nuts. Allergen warnings can be found in the “Contains” statement which is placed immediately above the manufacturer, packer, or distributor statement.

On the food label you will also notice (“and/or” labeling). This is allowed in foods that contain small amounts of added ingredients but are not the primary ingredient. This is because the manufacture may be unable to predict which ingredient will be used.

Finally, it should be noted that the last three ingredients listed on the above label; Whey, Soy Flour, and Nonfat Milk will appear in miniscule or trace amounts.

Whole Grains, Fiber and Refined Grains

When reading a label, look for the term “whole” to appear as the first or second ingredient. This especially holds true for breads, breakfast cereals, crackers and pasta. The word “whole,” means it contains the entire grain, and none of it has been removed through processing. If it is a true whole grain, it will have at least three grams of fiber per serving. This information is located on the nutrition facts panel.

Just because bread appears to be brown does not make it a whole grain. Food processing companies can add molasses or other ingredients to change the color of the bread. Whole grains include brown rice, graham flour, oatmeal, whole grain barley, whole wheat bulgur, whole grain corn, whole oats, whole rye, and whole wheat.

Refined grains are also known as “enriched” grains to make them sound healthier on product labels. These refined flours and grains are commonly referred to on the ingredient list as “bleached.” These grains go through a milling process which eliminates the bran and germ. The grains are then stripped of their fiber, minerals and vitamins. Vitamin B and other nutrients are added back in to “enrich” the grain, but the fiber is not added back to the grain. Enriched bread, wheat flour and white rice are a few examples of an enriched grain.

Not all Sugars are Created Equal

Sugars in processed foods can be identified by reading both the nutrition facts panel and the ingredients list. When reading the ingredients list avoid refined sugars such as corn syrup and corn sweeteners, high fructose, sucrose, sugar alcohol and other artificial sweeteners. On the nutrition facts label, be aware of the total grams of sugar the product contains. If the nutrition facts panel states the product has four to five grams of sugar per serving that equals approximately one teaspoon of sugar.

Artificial Colorings

Food dyes are widely used in candies, cereals, snacks, and sodas to enhance their appearance and give them a healthier look. The FDA requires synthetic color additives be labeled by their name on the ingredient list. These include Blue dye 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6.

The FDA also requires for the allergenic information to be provided to consumers on the ingredients list. These colorings include carmine and cochineal extract. Other colorings may be listed only as artificial color or color additives.

Avoiding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)

Avoiding GMO’s can be a daunting task because GMO’s are found in almost eighty percent of American processed foods and in approximately ninety percent of conventionally grown foods. Canola, corn, soybean and sugar beet crops all fall into this category.

Your best bet is to avoid processed foods and products that contain high fructose corn syrup. These products will have a seal that states they are “Non-GMO Project Verified.” For dairy, meats and produce purchase foods that have the “USDA Organic” label.

Hidden Sodium

Sodium can be found on the ingredients label listed as “nitrates” or “nitrites.” Sodium is used in a wide variety of processed foods including cookies, canned soups, cheeses, deli meats, protein powders and salad dressings. Check the nutrition facts panel to see the total sodium content per serving.

Frequently Hidden Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Another additive to avoid is MSG; it may be labeled as MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG is also called “Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein” or “natural flavors” It can be considered a ‘natural’ flavor because the term encompasses any flavor that comes from something that is found in nature.

MSG can be found in a number of processed foods; it can also be found as an ingredient in a number of organic foods, so read the ingredients label carefully. “Yeast extract” and “soy protein isolate” are also commonly used terms for MSG.

Determining Fats the Good from the Bad

Select foods that contain non hydrogenated fats. Non hydrogenated fats contain zero trans fat and are considered to be in their natural state. Be wary of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats as they are both high in trans fats. Just because a product states it is “trans fat free” does not mean it is; it can contain up to half a gram of trans fat.

The FDA strictly defines nutrient content claims for both promotional advertising purposes and label content. Some of the most common nutrient claims are listed below.

What the Label States and What it Really Means

Food claims  and what they mean PER SERVING

  • Calorie free  – Less than 5 calories
  • Sugar free – Less than 0.5 grams of sugar
  • Cholesterol free – Less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
  • Low cholesterol – 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
  • Reduced cholesterol – At least 25 percent less cholesterol than the regular product and 2 grams or less of saturated fat
  • Fat free – Less than 0.5 grams of fat
  • Extra lean – Less than 5 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
  • Lean – Less than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol
  • Light – At least one-third fewer calories or no more than half the fat of the regular product, or no more than half the sodium of the regular product
  • Low fat – 3 grams of fat or less
  • Low in saturated fat – 1 gram of saturated fat or less, with not more than 15 percent of the calories coming from saturated fat
  • Reduced fat or Less Fat – At least 25 percent less fat than the regular product
  • Good source of fiber – 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber
  • High fiber – 5 grams or more of fiber
  • Low sodium – 140 milligrams or less of sodium
  • Sodium free or No Sodium – Less than 5 milligrams of sodium and must contain no sodium chloride in ingredients
  • Reduced or Less Sodium – At least 25 percent less sodium than the regular product
  • Very low sodium – 35 milligrams or less of sodium

I hope this gives you a better understanding of how to read a food product label. Knowing what to look for and where it is located on the wrapper is half the battle; then you can determine for yourself if the food is right for you.

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