Photo: Packaged Food on Down to Earth Shelf

by Sabra Leomo, RD

There is no denying that reading the Nutrition Facts Label is important when you are shopping for food. With nutrition facts focusing on serving size and nutrients such as calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein, the actual ingredients that go into food items are often overlooked. A food item may fit into your requirements for calories or other parameters but may be filled with highly-processed or artificial ingredients. Refined grains, added sugar, and hydrogenated oils in excess can all have negative effects on your health and increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

The ingredient list on the food label is a great way to know what you are actually eating. If a food item contains more than one ingredient it has to be listed on the label. There are a few simple things to keep in mind when trying to evaluate the ingredients in food products:

  • Ingredients are listed by quantity from highest to lowest. The ingredients that appear at the beginning of the list are found in the highest amounts.
  • Quickly scan the first 3 ingredients to get a good idea about the type of food product you are buying. If you see that the first 3 ingredients contain refined grains, sugar, or hydrogenated oils, look for another option that is less processed.

Sugar can be called different things in the ingredient list. Other common names for sugar include corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup or even dehydrated cane juice.

  • If the ingredient list is more than 2 or 3 lines and/or contains words that you can’t pronounce…skip it! 

Focus on making whole foods the focus of your healthy diet and lifestyle. You don’t have to worry about ingredient lists when you purchase whole food items like fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans because they don’t contain multiple ingredients. If you do buy processed food items, check the ingredient list to make sure that the ingredients are in line with your health goals.