You’ll be surprised to see that some foods comprise numerous ingredients with weird and complicated names that more often should belong in a chemistry lab, rather than on your plate.
Here’s a few things to help you successfully scan the list...
How the ingredient list is organized
First off, the ingredient list on a food label lists every ingredient in descending order of predominance by weight.In other words, the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the one that weighs the least is listed last.
This means that the two or three ingredients are those that matters the most, while the last ones might appear in the food on in tiny amounts (if not traces).
However, you don’t want to overlook the latter because some substances can be pretty harmful to your health even in really small amounts.
Ingredients should be also listed using the common or usual name for the ingredients unless there is a regulation that provides for a different term. For instance, the term “sugar” is used instead of the scientific name “sucrose”.
Water and trace ingredients
Water added in making a food is considered to be an ingredient. The added water must be identified in the list of ingredients and, as for the other ingredients, listed in its descending order of predominance by weight.
However, if all water added during processing is subsequently removed by baking or some other means during processing, water need not be declared as an ingredient.
Trace ingredients are declared only if the trace ingredient is present in a significant amount and has a function in the finished food. If a substance is an incidental additive and has no function or technical effect in the finished product, then it need not to be declared on the label.
Sometimes an incidental additive is usually present because it is an ingredient of another ingredient.
What happens with oils and fats
Many times fats and oil ingredients are listed with parentheses. Why that happens? According to the regulation in force, parentheses following the declaration of fat and oil blends is permitted only in the case of foods that contain relatively small quantities of added fat or oil ingredients (foods in which added fats or oils are not the predominant ingredient), and only if the manufacturer is unable to predict which fat or oil ingredient will be used.
Example: “INGREDIENTS:...Vegetable Oil (contains one or more of the following: Corn Oil, Soybean Oil, or Safflower Oil)”
Personally, I really dislike when a product contains such diction. I mean, how can it possibly be that the manufacturer doesn’t know what kind of oil he’s using that he needs to listed them all?
Is the manufacturing process so messed up?
Or is it just because he’s using a mixture of different (and crappy) oils? I don’t know, but honestly I don’t like it that much.
What about chemicals preservatives?
When an approved chemical preservative is added to a food, the ingredient list must include both the common or usual name of the preservative and the function of the preservative by including terms, such as “preservative”, “to retard spoilage”, “to protect flavor”, or “to promote color retention”.
You should lookout especially for preservatives in meats (especially cured meats) such as sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate.
Why? Because there has been some speculation that these chemicals may pose a cancer risk, although the evidence remains controversial. However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends to limit the amount consumed of these chemicals, if possible by choosing nitrite-free products when possible.
Natural flavors and artificial flavors
When it comes to natural flavors, artificial flavors or spices; those may be declared in ingredient lists by using either specific common or usual names or by using the declarations “spices”, “flavor”, “natural flavor”, or “artificial flavor”.
For instance: “INGREDIENTS: Apple Slices, Water, Cane Syrup, Corn Syrup, Modified Corn Starch, Spices, Salt, Natural Flavor and Artificial Flavor”.
Products that are spices or spice blends, flavors or colors must list each ingredient by name.
When it comes to artificial colors you should be really careful as there’s a differentiation whether the artificial color used is certified or not.
Certified colors are listed by specific or abbreviated name such as “Red 40.”
Non-certified colors are listed as “artificial color”, “artificial coloring”, or by their specific common or usual names such as “caramel coloring” and “colored with beet juice”.
These additives don’t add nutrient value, and some research suggests that some colorings may pose health dangers (we’ve covered this topic already), however the evidence gathered is not yet conclusive.
A lot of packaged foods are sweetened with many different kind of sugars: all ingredients that end in the word “ose” are forms of sugar (as well as all corn sweeteners).
All these sweeteners have a similar metabolic effect to other form of sugar: lot of calories but few nutrients; so you want to watch out for those!
Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats)
Partially hydrogenated oils are a source of trans fats, which have been shown to be potentially harmful for human healthy.
However, as we’ve already pointed out, if foods contain up to half a gram of trans fats per serving they don’t have to disclose it on the label, hence they can call themselves “trans-fat-free”.
That’s when looking on the ingredients list become crucial: if a food contains partially hydrogenated oils, it contains trans fat. That’s the end of the story.
Scanning the ingredient lists on food you’re buying is taking a great step toward better health. You’ll know what you’re eating and, as with every other activity, it’s a learning by doing activity. The more you do it, the better you become at it, and you’ll be able to spot the wrong stuff in a heartbeat!
The Iron You