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Understanding the Ingredients List

By Lukas Hambsch

Posted in Food label, Nutrition

Understanding the ingredients that are actually in your food is challenging. Food companies try their best to disguise ingredients that damage your health. They frequently use different words for the same ingredient. If researchers discover an ingredient will damage your health, food manufacturers will swap it for something less known but just as unhealthy.

Since most food companies don't care about your health, it's important to learn to understand what's really in your food. It will take you some time to recognize everything that shows up in your food. You can get used to the ingredients by looking up each one you don't recognize. By doing this, you'll familiarize yourself with them over time.

Ingredients to Use

Remembering the healthy ingredients is much easier than remembering the unhealthy ones. The healthiest ingredients are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes or beans, nuts, seeds, and spices. Sticking to these ingredients as much as you can will make you much healthier.

Eating foods containing ingredients you know fit into one of the categories above is the easiest way to make sense of the ingredients list. If it doesn't fit into one of those categories, you should question whether it's healthy or not. It's impossible for every ingredient to fit into those categories unless you cook everything from scratch.

When buying pre-made foods, find a brand that has health ingredients then buy that brand each time. This way you don't have to reeducate yourself each time you go grocery shopping. I'll provide an extensive list of ingredients to avoid below. But the easiest way to get started eating healthier is by eating food that is made of ingredients that fit into the categories above.

Ingredients to Avoid

Memorizing every unhealthy ingredients will drive you crazy. Instead, remember these simple rules and look up ingredients you aren't sure about.

  1. Avoid artificial sweeteners and anything that ends in -ose or has the word sugar, juice, or syrup in it.
  2. If you don't recognize it, it probably isn't healthy. Look up any ingredients you're unfamiliar with.
  3. Stay away from foods with artificial coloring.

You should avoid some specific ingredients proven to cause health issues and weight gain. Sticking to the rules above will help you avoid most of these ingredients, but you should still be aware of them and their negative effects. Remember, the most important step you can take towards a healthy diet is eating foods that are either vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, or seeds.

Added Sugar

Naturally occurring sugars in foods like fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet. It's the added sugar you have to avoid. Researchers link sugar consumption to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Studies also show that sugar produces cravings that are similar to those induced by addictive drugs. No wonder food manufacturers want to keep sugar in their foods. (1, 2, 3, 4)

They go to great lengths to hide sugar on their food labels. There are many different names for added sugar and this doesn't even include the fact that some manufacturers replace sugar with unhealthy artificial sweeteners.

Added sugar is unhealthy because it enters your bloodstream so quickly and provides zero additional nutrients. Naturally occurring sugars are okay because they come with additional nutrients and fiber which prevents the blood sugar spike that added sugar creates. Since there is a lot of fiber in the fruit and vegetables that have sugar, it slows the digestion of the sugar into your blood stream. Fruit and vegetables also provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants along with their naturally occurring sugars.

The first step to avoiding sugar is remembering to stay away from ingredients with a word ending in -ose and avoiding anything with the word sugar, juice, or syrup in it.

White Breads and Pastas

You should only eat breads and pastas that are whole grain. This is a challenge because so many of them are falsely advertised as whole grain. Many breads also contain artificial coloring to trick people into thinking they're whole grain. Another common trick is calling something whole wheat, which usually means part of the grain isn't used and it isn't as healthy. You want to choose products that are 100% whole grain.

These two rules will make it easy to make sure you are choosing whole grain products. If the box has the 100% whole grain stamp on it, you know it is a good choice. If the ingredient contains the word whole grain in it, it is also a good choice. You have to watch out for pastas that use some whole grains, but other mix in more processed versions as well. If you see more than one wheat ingredient, they're likely just mixing in the whole grains. Remember, less ingredients is better.

Artificial Sweeteners and Flavoring

For a while, people thought that artificial sweeteners were healthy. Since then, researchers have proven that they do more harm than good. They can wreak havoc on your metabolism because your body is expecting sugar, but never gets it. Many products that show sugar-free on their label are using artificial sweeteners instead. Those sweet tasting, zero calorie drinks use artificial sweeteners. If a food is considered junk food, it doesn't become healthy just because it is sugar-free or has zero calories. (1)

You can avoid artificial sweeteners without even paying too much attention to the ingredients label. If you stay away from junk food like processed snacks, candy, desserts, and sweet tasting drinks then you'll stay away from most artificial sweeteners. If something says sugar-free and you know it usually has sugar, check the ingredients list. You should also be careful with salad dressings because they are known to include artificial sweeteners.

Artificial Coloring

Foods that use artificial coloring are dangerous because of some known side effects. Many of them are known carcinogens that are banned in some countries. You can easily spot them in the ingredients list. Just avoid ingredients with a color in the name. (1)

Vegetable Oils and Hydrogenated Oils or Shortening

Hydrogenated oils are just oils that have been solidified through a chemical process. Food manufacturers use them to increase the shelf life of foods and stabilize the flavors. They are awful for you because the chemical process that solidifies them creates trans fats. Research shows that trans fats raise your bad cholesterol, lower your good cholesterol, and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. (1)

The FDA allows food manufacturers to list the trans fat on their label as 0 even when some trans fat is present. As long as there is less than .5g of trans fat per serving, they can list it as 0. So it's important to check the ingredients label for any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Shortening is just another word for hydrogenated vegetable oil, so avoid that too. It's common for pre packaged foods to contain these ingredients, so check those lists closely.

Preservatives and Other Additives

There are various other additives and preservatives used in your food that you should avoid. You want to eat food in their natural state. Anything that preserves your food or adds to it's taste, other than whole foods, is unhealthy. Stick to whole food ingredients as much as possible and stay away from the preservatives or additives that can damage your health.

Ingredients to Avoid Lists

This list can be pretty overwhelming, so don't try to memorize it. It's meant as a reference, so you can bookmark it and check it while you're shopping.

Added Sugar

  • corn sweetener
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • fruit juice concentrates
  • glucose
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • invert sugar
  • lactose
  • maltose
  • malt syrup
  • raw sugar
  • sucrose
  • sugar syrup
  • cane crystals
  • cane sugar
  • crystalline fructose
  • evaporated cane juice
  • corn syrup solids
  • malt syrup

Artificial Sweeteners / Flavoring

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame potassium
  • Alitame
  • Cyclamate
  • Dulcin
  • Equal
  • Glucin
  • Kaltame
  • Mogrosides
  • Neotame
  • NutraSweet
  • Nutrinova
  • Phenlalanine
  • Saccharin
  • Splenda
  • Sorbitol
  • Sucralose
  • Twinsweet
  • Sweet ?N Low
  • Xylitol

Artificial Coloring

  • Citrus Red 2
  • Blue 1
  • Blue 2
  • Green 3
  • Red 3
  • Red 40
  • Yellow 5
  • Yellow 6

Preservatives / Other Additives

  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
  • Maltodextrin
  • Sodium Caseinate
  • Autolyzed Yeast
  • Autolyzed Vegetable Protein
  • Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein
  • Yeast Extract
  • Hydrolyzed Protein
  • Yeast Nutrient
  • Torulo Yeast
  • Natural Flavoring
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Ammonium Sulfate
  • Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Benzoic Acid
  • Potassium Benzoate
  • Sodium Nitrate
  • Sodium Nitrite
  • Potassium Bromate
  • Propyl Gallate