Editor’s Note: This post was written by our new healthy living contributor, Heather Caplan, R.D., a registered dietitian from healthy living destination Spright, which offers simple, helpful everyday eating and fitness guides.
There are plenty of food package features that try to create a perceived health value of what’s inside. Some labels are regulated, some health claims must be backed by research, and some have no substance whatsoever! It can certainly be a challenge to decipher which is which, given creative designs and questionable standards. All of that aside, there is one element of every food package that tells you all you need to know!
Look at the ingredient list FIRST.
Somewhere near the nutrition facts label, you’ll see the ingredients in that food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandates this list on most food packages, with very few exceptions. While it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing part of the box or bag, it’s definitely the most telling!
More specifically, look for the first ingredient listed.
The ingredients list is organized by weight, in order of quantity used, which can tell you a lot about whether or not you’re about to eat what you expected to. Checking ingredients, and their order, gives a good nutritional snapshot, too. It may cause you to think twice about the purchase! As an example, I once noticed that a can of tomatoes had sugar added (why?!) and promptly put it right back on the shelf.
Think quality (of ingredients) over quantity (of calories).
In general, the fewer ingredients, the better! Think about how many of those ingredients are “foods” you recognize, versus chemicals or additives you wouldn’t use at home. For comparison, take these two cereals: Cheerios and Love Grown Foods (LGF) Original Power O’s. Serving for serving, the LGF O’s come in a little bit higher in calories, but the quality of those calories is worth noting: more fiber, more protein, less sodium. What’s on their ingredient lists?
The Cheerios ingredient list: Whole grain oats (includes the oat bran), modified cornstarch, sugar, salt, tripotassium phosphate, wheat starch, and vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) added to preserve freshness. Total: seven items, not counting the additional vitamins and minerals added to fortify the cereal (i.e., add nutrients).
The Power O's ingredient list: Bean blend (navy beans, lentils, garbanzo beans), brown rice, salt, and vitamin E (mixed tocopherols) added to maintain freshness. This list has just four ingredients (unless you count the beans separately), most of which are recognizable foods!
Moral of the story? As Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, puts it, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” I love this simple statement. The main reason to quality-check a package’s ingredient list is to make sure you’re actually consuming food. Sure, even with some high-quality products, it’s common to see a few preservatives, emulsifiers, and/or binders. But those should be close to the last things listed, and they shouldn’t outnumber actual foods! Most people wouldn’t recognize “tripotassium phosphate” as a food, or at least wouldn’t likely have it as a pantry staple. If you’re curious, EWG published a good resource to consult for food additives and food safety.
Visit Spright for more healthy eating tips like these.
What else do you look for when you grocery shop? Tell us below.