Nutrition Nugget: Ingredients IQ
Bite-Size Reads for You and Your Waistline
When it comes to choosing the “healthier” food options, there are so many factors to consider. I remember feeling totally overwhelmed at times in the midst of my weight management saga. My hungry, desperate eyes scanning over each label, my grocery run taking way longer than I wanted and I walked out of the store more frustrated and confused than when I walked in. After kicking my food issues and helping countless others do the same, I realized this was a common dilemma. To quell your overwhelming thoughts, I’ve compiled my top tips to break down the ingredients section of food labels. What ingredients to look for and which to avoid the next time stocking-up on groceries…it’s all here.
Firstly, actually read the labels. So often we run our eyes over the label but never take the time to fully understand what is going into our bodies. Now that we agree we’re going to read to understand, here’s what you’re looking for:
1. Pay the most attention to the first 3–5 ingredients
Foods are supposed to list the ingredients from the highest quantity to the lowest quantity. This is measured by each ingredient’s volume by dry weight. So if it’s at the top of the list, there’s more of it in the food. The top five ingredients are most important. Be sure these ingredients are ones you can pronounce and don’t include anything that sounds like sugar (sugar, syrup, etc. More on this below.)
2. Consider what types of fuel these will give your body
Is this processed food going to give you protein, fiber, high-quality fat, vitamins, or minerals? If not, you may want to just stop here and keep looking. This information is easiest to read when looking more at the nutrition facts but the ingredients give us the details. For example, a can of tuna said 11g of fat. WHOA! The next question to ask would be, is that the fat naturally in the tuna or is it added? This answer is in the ingredients! Sure enough, the ingredients listed olive oil. That’s the fat! If the ingredients said only tuna or tuna and salt, without listing any fats, we could take that to mean the fat in the nutrition facts section is the fat naturally occurring in the tuna.
3. Make sure there are no sweeteners in those first 5 ingredients…at least
This is where it gets tricky! Sweeteners can be labeled as anything and not limited to syrups, sugars, juices, turbinado, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, sorghum syrup, barley malt, molasses, cane sugar, and fruit juice concentrate! Not only are these all considered sweeteners, but look out for sugar alcohols (usually ending in “tol”). Even though these do not spike your blood sugar, they can still have overall effects on your health (especially if eaten in large quantities) and keep you addicted to that sweet taste.
4. Identify and completely avoid trans fat
If you want to learn more about the ins and out of trans fat, check out my previous article, The Truth of Trans Fat. Here’s the quick and dirty on trans fat: avoid it entirely. Trans fats are man-made, new-to-nature molecules found mostly in packaged baked goods, but you’ll also find them in surprising places; they are often used to keep foods “fresh” while sitting on the shelf and keep the oil from separating (think natural peanut butter vs Skippy). These will show up in the ingredients as words like “modified, fractionated, hydrogenated, or hydrolyzed” paired with a fat, usually a vegetable oil.
5. Look for the words “whole” or “sprouted” next to wheat, oat, barley, rye or any grain
Avoid the words cracked, extruded, ground and flour. These are all processes that the grain has gone through, therefore changing the molecular structure of the ingredient which alters its effect on our bodies…and not in a good way. Avoid reading the marketing callouts on the package and actually read the ingredients to see if it’s really made with whole grains.
Overall, ingredients are just one of many factors to consider when choosing our food. The best rules of thumb are to choose foods with as few ingredients as possible and avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce. Better yet, stick to the foods that don’t have labels! But I know that’s unrealistic for the rest of our lives so now you’re equipped with the tools to read those ingredients and actually understand them. Congrats! You’re healthier already.