Previously, we've discussed what the nutrition facts label means on the back of a packaged food. Today, we are going to take a deeper look at the ingredients list and discover what to avoid and what to look for.
First off, the best advice I can give you is to buy foods without labels, like fruits and vegetables. An apple doesn’t need an ingredients facts panel – there’s only one ingredient! Along with this rule are foods that are single ingredient foods, like nuts, nut butters, oils, meats, eggs, etc. Most of these foods will come in a package, so turn that package over and look for yourself. Are almonds or turkey the only ingredient in this package or are extra oils, salt, and/or sugar added as well? There should be just a single ingredient.
Now please remember that unhealthy foods can also have a single ingredient as well, like vegetable oils, shortening, canola oil, etc. These foods are the exception to the one-ingredient rule and should be avoided if at all possible.
So, when we look at the ingredients list on a package of food, the goal is to find the products with the fewest number of ingredients as possible. In addition, you want to make sure that you can pronounce all of the ingredients. If you can’t pronounce it or have never heard of it, why should you be consuming it?!
When it comes to the order that ingredients are listed, it is important to realize that ingredients that make up the largest percentage will be listed first, followed by the rest of the ingredients in order of percentage. Therefore, if sugar is in the top three or five ingredients, then you know that sugar is one of the highest percentage ingredients in the food. Not cool.
However, food manufacturers know this, so they will use several different kinds of sugar so that the percentage of each kind of sugar is lower, making them listed lower on the ingredient label. But, this also increases the overall percentage of sugar in the product - it's just distributed among more types of sugar. Also not cool.
While we are on the subject of sugar, let’s discuss all of its forms that might appear in food ingredient lists. Believe me, there are a ton! Below is a list to get you started. If you see any of these ingredients listed on a label, just know that they product has extra added sugars and probably should be avoided (image courtesy of the 21DSD). P.S. need a quick way to remember this list? Look for words that end in –ose, like dextrose, fructose, or maltose. This suffix is a clue to sugar.
Alright, we now know to avoid sugar and all of its disguises on ingredient labels, but what else should we be looking out for and avoiding? Please note that this is not a comprehensive list!
Monosodium glutamate MSG
Potassium benzoate and sodium benzoate
BHA and BHT
Canola oil and all vegetable oils
What a fun list of hard to pronounce words? Remember, if you see these listed in the ingredient list, run the other way.
So if that is what we should be avoiding on ingredient lists, what should we be looking for?
First, look for short ingredient lists. Short lists mean (most of the time) minimal processing.
Second, look for real food ingredients that you can find in nature. Can you go out and pick MSG from a tree? Nope. I didn’t think so. But you can go pick an apple or banana or avocado.
Third, look for fats and oils that you know are healthy and healing, not inflammatory. These include coconut oil, avocado, olive oil, avocado oil, and raw nuts.
Fourth, when possible, look for organic ingredients. Now, that doesn’t mean that organic is always better. Organic Oreos are still Oreos, the same way that organic sugar is still sugar.
Lastly, salt isn’t the worst ingredient you can find on a label, but with most packaged foods, the sodium levels are much higher than they need to be. Instead, look for (and use in your own kitchen) sea salt, which is so much better than regular salt and contains trace minerals as well.
Feeling lost or overwhelmed? Have you looked into your cupboard and noticed that most everything in there doesn’t fit the list? That’s okay. Start little by little clearing those processed, packaged foods out and start adding real foods with stellar ingredient lists back in. It will take time, but that time is totally worth it!