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Reading & Interpreting Ingredient Lists on Food Labels

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we'll learn how to read and understand the ingredient list on food labels. We'll learn what the purpose of some of the strange or commonly unknown ingredients are and where they come from.

Nutrition Labels

Have you ever looked at an ingredient list on your favorite snack? You might have been surprised to see how many ingredients were listed, and how unfamiliar many of those ingredients were! At first glance, this may seem scary, but as you learn what each of those ingredients are, it may not be quite as scary. On a nutrition label, the main section explains how many calories are in each serving and the percent daily recommended doses of common nutrients. Typically, below this section you'll find the ingredient list, which tells you everything that was used to make the food.

Ingredient Order

The ingredients are listed by weight; the ingredient that has the highest weight is listed first, and the ingredient with the lowest weight is listed last. This is important as we examine which ingredients come first on the list because if sugar shows up high on the list, then we know the product should probably be eaten sparingly. Sometimes, we'll see an ingredient with a list of ingredients after it in parentheses. When this is done, the ingredients in parentheses are listed in order by weight for what's included in the main or original ingredient.

Example

In order to understand how ingredient lists work, let's make one of our own. Let's say that we have a recipe for cookies:

  • 100 grams butter
  • 150 grams brown sugar
  • 50 grams egg
  • 215 grams flour
  • 10 grams baking powder
  • 4 grams cinnamon
  • 5 grams salt
  • 250 grams sweetened applesauce

This ingredient list seems pretty straight forward; first, we list the ingredients by weight:

  • Applesauce
  • Flour
  • Brown Sugar
  • Butter
  • Egg
  • Baking powder
  • Salt
  • Cinnamon

But, then we realize that our applesauce has additional ingredients. When we look on that ingredient declaration it says: apples, high fructose corn syrup, water and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The flour also has additional ingredients: bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid. And, the baking powder has additional ingredients, too: corn starch, sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, and monocalcium phosphate. We don't know if there's more monocalcium phosphate in the baking powder, or if there's more niacin in the flour. So, we need to put these ingredients in parentheses after the main ingredient.

Even simple, homemade goods could end up having long ingredient lists.
Cookie picture

Our final ingredient declaration will look like this: applesauce (apples, high fructose corn syrup, water, ascorbic acid), flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), brown sugar, butter, egg, baking powder (corn starch, sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, monocalcium phosphate), salt, cinnamon.

The Scary Ingredients

Already our ingredient declaration is beginning to look scary. There are 21 separate ingredients, and some of them the typical person would likely have no idea what they are! For example, why isn't my flour just flour? What's up with all of those other ingredients? What are all of those ingredients in my baking powder? The only normal-looking ingredient in there is corn starch!

These additional ingredients are referred to as food additives. Food additives are substances added to food to enhance its appearance, flavor, or shelf life. Legally, these are defined as anything not on the generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list. The GRAS list includes ingredients such as wheat and eggs, foods that have been consumed for millennia. Food additives can be added for several reasons including:

  • Flavor enhancers (such as ascorbic acid, to give a tart flavor)
  • Adding nutrients (thiamine)
  • Bulking agents (such as the corn starch; otherwise, it'd be really hard to measure the correct amount of baking powder because we'd be using such a small amount)
  • Preservatives (calcium propionate)
  • Anti-caking agents (silicon dioxide)
  • Emulsifiers (soy lecithin)
  • Raising agents (sodium bicarbonate)
  • Stabilizers (carrageenan)
  • Thickeners (pectin)

So, each of these food additives has a specific purpose in the food. The safety of the food additive has also been reviewed by the Federal Food Administration (FDA) to ensure each food additive is safe to consume in the amounts they're added to the food.

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