|Gillian Goodfriend, NCHPAD Registered Dietician|
Since 1994, the FDA has required the 'Nutrition Facts' food label to be placed on most food packaging. While the food label provides very important information, the ingredient list, which has been appearing on foods for years, cannot be ignored.
By law, packaged foods must list every ingredient that the product contains. The way in which the ingredients are listed is in order from most to least. Therefore, those sugary cereals, which list sugar as the first ingredient, are, in-fact, made primarily of sugar.
The ingredient list can be especially important for people with food allergies but it can also reveal hidden fats, added sugars, and types of grains and flours, in particular. The ingredient list provides the details that the 'Nutrition Facts' label may not show.
Trans fat has been listed on the 'Nutrition Facts' label since 2006. However, the law states that a company can claim that something contains 0 grams of trans fat if the amount of trans fat is less than 0.5 grams per serving. A half a gram may not seem like a lot, but remember that serving sizes are often misleading and you may be consuming several grams of trans fat with multiple servings.
The only way to know if a product truly contains trans fat is to look at the ingredient list. If you see the words 'hydrogenated' or 'partially hydrogenated,' the product contains trans fat. Many oils, like corn, soybean, cottonseed, and coconut, are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated to make products more shelf-stable.
To read more about the negative health effects of trans fat, visit the following link: /531/2472/Nutrition~Spotlight~~The~Fat~Debate
While some sugar occurs naturally in foods, other sugars are added to enhance the flavor of certain products. Unfortunately, most foods that contain large amounts of added sugars are also lower in fiber and nutrients and higher in calories. The 'Nutrition Facts' label will tell you how many grams of sugar a serving of a certain food contains, but the ingredient list can tell you what has actually been added. Look for the following ingredients to determine the types of added sugars:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- brown sugar
- corn sweetener
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- raw sugar
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has especially been in the spotlight lately for its negative health effects. High-fructose corn syrup is made by changing the glucose in cornstarch to fructose - another form of sugar. The end product is a combination of fructose and glucose. The benefits for manufacturers are that HFCS extends the shelf life of processed foods and is cheaper than sugar. It has become an ingredient in many products, including sodas, fruit drinks, some yogurts, and even some cereals and crackers. Some claims indicate that HFCS is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. However, research has been conflicting and many articles discussing the dangers of HFCS are not credible. The best rule of thumb is to try to limit products that contain added sugars, which will therefore help to reduce the amount of processed foods in your diet in general.
Many products claim to be made from whole grains, but the only way to know what type of grain(s) a food contains is to look at the ingredient list. Whole grain means that the grain contains all three parts - the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains offer many health benefits and contain many key nutrients, like B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, and fiber.
If a product contains 'enriched flour' as the main ingredient, the product does not contain whole grains. If products, like cereal and bread, don't have some type of whole grain as the first ingredient, much of its vitamin and mineral-rich germ and bran layers have been lost in processing, along with most of the fiber. Enriched flour has had some nutrients added back into it, like B vitamins and iron, which were lost when the wheat was refined.
The 'Nutrition Facts' label is a good indication of the type of grain that a food contains, as those products containing whole grains will inevitably be higher in fiber. But look for these grains to be listed as the first ingredient to ensure you are actually getting whole grains:
- whole wheat
- whole oats
- brown rice
- whole grain corn
- whole rye
- wild rice
Shopping for the healthiest foods can be a challenge these days with all the products that are available. Knowing what to look for on the 'Nutrition Facts' labels and the ingredient lists can help you make the best choices for your health.
Please send any questions or comments to Gillian Goodfriend at firstname.lastname@example.org.