Navigating an Ingredient Panel
Now more than ever people are becoming more health conscious by taking charge of their nutrition and what is put into their bodies. It can be extremely rewarding to make healthful food choices that can leave us feeling our absolute best. The first step in making better diet choices is as simple as reading nutrition labels or ingredient panels! One specific food mantra has been gaining popularity over the years, “don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce on the ingredients label”. Though this may seem like logical nutritional advice, exactly how accurate is avoiding foreign or hard to pronounce ingredients as a way to benefit our health? Here we will dive in to explain how to navigate an ingredient panel and what common ingredients are actually labeled as.
How are ingredients listed on a food label? All ingredients in a food product are listed on the label required by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are printed in order of predominance or quantity by weight. This means the ingredient used in the greatest amount would be listed first, followed by the remaining ingredients in descending order with those in smaller amounts listed last.1 These ingredients may be food additives included in the product by the manufacturer or simply just complicated names for common everyday ingredients. Some additional ingredients are included in food products to maintain safety and freshness, or to improve nutritional value, taste, texture, and appearance.1 We rely on these added ingredients to extend the shelf life of food products for the aesthetic and convenient benefits they provide. Food and color additives are more strictly regulated and studied today more than any other time in history!
What are some of these complicated words on my nutrition facts label? Some ingredients we are familiar with may be listed on a nutrition label by a name we may not be expecting. It is normal to see a long, unfamiliar word on a product and think of it as some sort of complex chemical compound. It is important to keep in mind that every food we eat whether it be a freshly picked piece of fruit or a homemade pie is made up of chemical compounds that play a role in overall flavor, color, texture, and nutrient value.1 Some FDA regulations may require ingredient lists to include all sub-ingredients. For example, a common name such as “baking powder” may legally be required to be shown on a package as “baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, and cornstarch)”.2 Other intimidating ingredients may be helpful food additives serving important roles in our food products. Preservatives such as antioxidants slow down food spoilage for a longer shelf life or prevent fresh cut fruits from browning. The most common antioxidant additive is actually vitamin C, or more commonly printed on labels as “ascorbic acid”. Other additives serve a purpose to improve a food’s nutritional value. Vitamins and minerals are added to foods to enhance the nutritional quality of the product or replace what may have been lost in processing. Scientific names of vitamins can be used on ingredient lists instead of its common name. “Riboflavin”, “thiamine”, and “niacin” could be seen on a product label, which are actually just other names for the various types of vitamin B.
The fewer ingredients on a product label the better, right? It is a common misconception that the shorter the ingredient list on foods the better. This actually isn't always the case! The quality of those ingredients are just as or even more important than the quantity. Some additives are derived from natural sources, one example being lecithin. This foreign or unfamiliar word is actually derived from soy or corn, used as an emulsifier that helps keep fats and oils mixed into products. Other ingredients may not come from nature and therefore synthetically produced as an artificial ingredient. Other food additives found on food labels may be found in nature, yet can be manufactured artificially with better quality than the naturally derived version. A great example of this is vitamin C (ascorbic acid) which can be taken from citrus fruits or produced in a laboratory.1 Ingredient lists may contain the term “natural flavor”. Those flavors are created using ingredients from natural sources such as spices, fruit or fruit juices, vegetable or vegetable juices, herbs, bark, other plant materials, and more. Other ingredients may be listed as “artificial flavors” which are synthetic flavorings created from chemical sources rather than natural sources.3 Here at Nutrition for Longevity (N4L), no artificial flavorings or sweeteners are used in any of our meals. Artificial flavors are sometimes used since they can be created at lower cost with greater flavor consistency than from natural sources. Since we now know that all food is made from chemical compounds, the main difference between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of those chemicals. Whether the ingredient is taken from nature or artificially produced, all food ingredients are monitored under strict safety standards.1 If a product’s ingredient list is lengthy, this isn't always a sign of an “unhealthy” food. The quality of those ingredients is what really matters! If all are naturally derived, the amount of ingredients won’t impact the overall nutritional quality of the product. Let’s take a look at N4L’s Loma Linda Chocolate Zucchini Bread with N4L Mixed Berry Compote.
This delightful breakfast’s ingredient list contains all natural ingredients with no artificial or synthetic flavors or sweeteners. The vegan dark chocolate chips contain soy lecithin, that we now know is an all-natural emulsifier. All ingredients listed here are from whole foods that together, make up a nutrient-dense, Michelin Star Chef curated meal.
Sugar. The ingredient with many names. We usually think added sugar is found in foods such as desserts or sweets. The reality is sugar can be hidden in a variety of other foods such as bread or even pasta sauce! It may be particularly difficult to spot on an ingredient list because there are many different names for sugar. There are actually over 60 different terms manufacturers will use just for sugar on product labels!5 Some commonly used names include: sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, barley malt, dextrose, rice syrup, maltose, and so many more.6 But are all sugars on ingredient lists created equal? We may see “total sugars” and “added sugars” on nutrition facts labels. Total sugars include sugars that are naturally present in many nutritious foods. Some natural sugars may be fructose found in fruits or lactose naturally in dairy products. Added sugars consist of sugars added to products during processing. Refined sugar is a popular added sugar, meaning that a natural ingredient had been processed to extract the sugar from the original food source. Added sugar can also be chemically manufactured, such as sucrose which is the result of refinement and chemical processing. The main food sources of added sugars are sweetened beverages, baked goods, and desserts.7
“Example Nutrition Label from the U.S Food & Drug Administration” 7
Let’s continue taking charge of our nutrition by making healthful choices in what foods we eat. A step in the right direction is learning how to properly navigate through ingredient panels. By understanding and recognizing the complex intimidating ingredient names commonly seen in food products, we can recognize that some are actually beneficial and naturally derived ingredients that should not be feared. At Nutrition for Longevity, every meal is crafted by our executive chef and dietitians ensuring you get nutrient-rich meals that taste incredible with all natural ingredients. Take a look at the plant powered longevity diet meals, and see for yourself the farm-fresh wholesome ingredients that go into every N4L meal.
- Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives & Colors. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-ingredients-packaging/overview-food-ingredients-additives-colors. Published 2021. Accessed March 31, 2021.
- Food Label Misconceptions. Food Ingredient Facts. https://www.foodingredientfacts.org/food-label-misconceptions/. Published 2021. Accessed March 31, 2021.
- CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21. Accessdata.fda.gov. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=101.22. Published 2021. Accessed April 1, 2021.
- Loma Linda Chocolate Zucchini Bread with N4L Mixed Berry Compote. Nutrition For Longevity Meal Delivery. https://nutritionforlongevity.com/collections/ready-made-vegan-menu/products/loma-linda-blueberry-oatmeal. Published 2021. Accessed April 2, 2021.
- Hidden in Plain Sight. SugarScience.UCSF.edu. https://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/#.YGUS8h0h3-Y. Published 2021. Accessed March 31, 2021.
- Calculating How Much Sugar Is In A Container. West Orange, New Jersey: Jackie Philbin RDN
- Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/added-sugars-new-nutrition-facts-label. Published 2021. Accessed March 31, 2021.