real food abcs - understanding ingredients labeling

March 18, 2014

real food abcs - understand ingredient lists

U for Understanding Ingredients Lists

I think understanding the ingredients list on a package of food is so much more important than the nutrition facts panel. Originally I was going to write a post about how to read the facts panel, but I rarely read it myself. I think it is much more helpful and much more true to who I am to talk about the ingredients lists on packages of food.

Why read the ingredients list?

The ingredients list on a package will tell you the ingredients. And now you are saying "thanks suzy, so insightful!"
Reading the ingredients list can give you an idea of:

  • how processed the food is
  • how close to a real food it is
  • if the food contains allergens
  • if the food contains dyes
  • if the food contains artificial colors
  • how many types of sugars it contains
  • what type of fat/oil is used
Food companies are not going to give you this information up front. They put the most favorable (for them) information on the front of the package. Consumers have to dig deeper to see how healthy the food really is.

Where is the ingredients list?

Usually the ingredients list will be right under or next to the nutrition facts panel.

How are ingredients listed?

Ingredients are always listed in order of most to least by weight. That means the ingredient that is the heaviest will come first and it will go on down from there. There are "exceptions" to this. If there are 2 parts to a food item, like a bar that has fruit in the middle and a cereal/what type outer coating then they can list the outer coating first even if the fruit part is heavier. Sneaky, huh. I found this out a few years ago.

So knowing that ingredients are listed most to least, you can see what ingredient you are mostly getting. Is sugar near the top? Are you paying for water? Did they mostly use enriched flour but then towards the bottom throw in some whole grain? (and of course prominently display that on the front)

Things to avoid in an ingredients list

This is by no means the be all end all of suggestions. I know I will be forgetting a bunch of ingredients that are good to avoid, but it is a start.

  • High fructose Corn Syrup
  • Partially Hydrogenated Oil
  • Hydrogenated Oil
  • Soy 
  • Canola
  • Non-organic corn
  • MSG
  • artificial colors
  • artificial flavors
  • BHT
  • Propylene glycol
  • sodium nitrates and nitrites
  • sodium benzoate
  • modified cornstarch

Tips to make it easier to navigate packaged foods

  • ignore the front of the package claims
  • look for short ingredients lists (although not a guarantee)
  • once you find a good product, remember it so you do not have to keep searching every time you go to the store
  • make more things from scratch

Eating real food is so much easier than reading food labels. Although in our journey towards real food, there are still food packages in our home, there seem to be fewer and fewer as time goes on. Which makes cooking easier and eating more enjoyable.

For more real food tips, nutrition, natural living and more: