Empower yourself to thrive by understanding and decoding nutrition labels with a few simple tips and explanations. You don’t have to be a nutritionist (or a detective) to identity good quality food and feel
Decoding the Ingredient List
In Part 1: Understanding Nutrition Fact Panels, I focused on quantities and amounts in the Nutrition Facts Panel. Today we’ll explore the Ingredient List, which I ultimately consider to be the most important place for assessing the quality of your food.
Listed in order of weight (highest to lowest proportion), the ingredient list is your best source for finding out the overall quality of your food. It lists whole food ingredients, added vitamins or minerals, flavors and coloring.
Example: Vega Essentials Ingredient List
When reading an ingredient list, keep these things in mind:
- The fewer ingredients in a food – the better (but not always!):
Often this will mean fewer food additives, but this isn’t always the rule. Choosing ingredients that are REAL is most important. That means whole foods, or ingredients based from whole foods (minimally processed), which make these food choices naturally more nutrient dense. Usually this means foods you can recognize based on name alone.
- Stick to what you can pronounce—most of the time
You may also notice a few words that look unpronounceable, unusual, or unfamiliar. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad. Gums like xanthan and guar gum for example are used to keep a protein shake from settling at the bottom of your shaker. They are natural, plant-based polysaccharides (a type of carbohydrate), derived through a fermentation process.
- Is it fortified or naturally occurring (vitamins and minerals)?
Products with large vitamin and mineral claims often means there are added, isolated vitamins (i.e. they’re not naturally occurring in the food itself). On the ingredients list, this could read as “vitamin and minerals: iron, thiamine, calcium pantothenate” etc... This may be a way for you to boost levels of certain nutrients in the diet, but it’s better to get your nutrients from real, whole food ingredients as much as possible.
Use this chart of processing and sourcing terms to determine where an ingredient comes from:
Processing and Sourcing Terms:
These may appear within the ingredients list, or as icons/call-outs on the package.
- Raw: Generally recognized as indicating a foods processing temperature did not go above a 105-118 degrees Fahrenheit. However, there is no regulation around the term “raw”, and manufacturers are free to make the claim at their discretion.
- Hydrogenated/Partially Hydrogenated (Oils): Treat with caution! This means an oil (typically a lesser quality vegetable oil like canola, soy, or corn oil) has been chemically manipulated to be more shelf stable in a packaged food product. This is not a natural state for fats to be in, and the body has a hard time metabolizing them. This can affect normal cell functions, thwarting weight loss and zapping your energy.
- Sprouted: Indicates that a grain, legume, or seed has been activated (i.e. through soaking) to begin germination. The early germination activates enzymes in the food, which aid in digestion. Many find that sprouted versions of foods they usually have difficulty eating, are easier to digest when sprouted (such as sprouted grains and wheat).
- (Micro) Milled: Often used in conjunction with seeds (such as flax) that are easier to digest when the outer shell is cracked (or milled). Yet in many cases seeds contain delicate Omega 3s, which can be prone to rancidity when exposed to light or oxygen through processing. Products that contained milled or processed Omega-3 fats (including hemp and chia, oils and powders) should be kept in sealed containers, out of direct sunlight.
- Certified Vegan: Beyond not containing any obvious dairy or animal based ingredients in an ingredients list, foods that are Certified Vegan go one step further to ensure ingredients also aren’t processed using animal based ingredients or derivatives.
- Gluten-free: Indicates a food has been third party tested to verify it contains less than 20 parts-per-million (ppm) gluten. This will often require manufacturers to use dedicated gluten-free facilities, or integrate the strictest sanitation standards to prevent cross contamination. Foods with this logo are safe for anyone with Celiac disease, or a gluten sensitivity.
- Organic: Foods with an organic certification logo (such as USDA Organic, or Canada Organic) must contain greater than 95% organic ingredients. However, foods can still contain organic ingredients, even if not indicated through an organic logo, so it’s always best to look. Choose foods which contain organic ingredients higher up on the list (indicating greater proportion).
Note: In some instances, it may not always be necessary to buy organic. If you can ask the farmer about their growing practices (such as buying from a seasonal farmer’s market when possible), or if the food is grown naturally without the use of fertilizers or pesticides. Hemp for example is naturally pest resistant and a hearty crop.
- Non-GMO Project Verified: These foods have undergone comprehensive screening to verify that they do not contain detectable or traceable genetic material that has been modified from its original form.
Numerical Indicators such as “100% whole wheat”, or “made with 70% organic ingredients” can often provide a better indicator of quality, than less specific (and more misleading) claims such as “made with whole grains.” This claim could mean the product contains whole grains, refined grains and partial grains (such as just the bran), which are less nutritionally dense the whole grain itself.
What’s not on the label might be just as important as what is...
Beyond the Nutrition Fact Panels, and Ingredients List, you may want to also evaluate a food based on call outs showing what’s not in a food. Such as “Made without___[dairy, gluten, soy]” or “contains no [artificial ingredients].”
Food manufacturers will often use these call-outs to help save their customers time in product selection, as it makes it easy to identify if a product meets their dietary criteria. This is a marketing element (not required), so not every company will integrate this. When in doubt – still read your ingredients list if there is a particular one you are looking to avoid.
Foods to Avoid:
- Aspartame or Sucralose
- Sodium Benzoate
- Highly processed sweeteners such as white sugar, (high fructose) corn syrup, glucose syrup, and fructose-glucose
- Artificial ingredients (such as color or flavor)
- Food additives with addictive properties that disrupt your brain’s satiation signals (such as MSG/mono-sodium-glutamate)
Your personal health scenario may require you to avoid or seek out additional factors such as high protein foods, low sodium, or sugar-free foods for example. Speak to a health care practitioner, registered dietician or nutritionist for further support and guidance.
I’d love to answer any questions you have about reading nutrition labels, or ingredients lists – comment below, or share what you find most important when choosing your food.