Understanding the ingredient list on food labels at your grocery store and what to avoid

items organized on shelves

Corn Maltodextrin. Soy Lethicin. Monoglycerides.

Sound like a science experiment?

These are common, run-of-the-mill ingredients found in many items that we consume on a regular basis, such as children’s cereal and granola bars.

The food industry is sadly just that: an industry. And as an industry, the prime focus of food manufacturers is to sell more products, and for their products to survive transport and last longer on shelves. They do that by adding preservatives and other ingredients, which may not be optimal for our health. 

The days of farm-to-table are long gone, as urbanization, the fast pace of modern life, and exponential  growth in cities’ populations has meant that people are unable to grow their own food, and instead have to rely on multiple trips to the grocery store for items to fill their fridges and line their pantries. The average grocery store carries about 33,000 items(1), and while fresh produce, and other household products contribute to that number, a large portion of it constitutes long-life shelf products which may not always be good for you. 

This is where it gets tricky. Clever branding, attractive packaging, and somewhat misleading slogans, such as “No artificial flavors added”, or “No sugar added” often dupe consumers into thinking that the items they are buying are wholesome and healthy, when they might be loaded with chemicals, artificial sweeteners and preservatives.

So, what are we to do to avoid falling into these common grocery store traps? How do you go about buying and feeding your family the most nutritious, least processed foods? Here are a few tips to use, next time you head down those stocked aisles.

Short and sweet

As a general rule of thumb, the shorter the ingredient list is, the better. A short ingredient list typically means that the food has not been overly processed and remains as close to its natural state as possible, with fewer additions or alterations. 

To test this theory, next time you are walking down the aisles of the grocery store, compare a package of highly processed cookies or crisps in the snacks’ aisle to a pouch of good quality baby food. The latter usually contain a small number of ingredients, most of which are usually recognizable, while highly processed snacks might carry a long list of ingredients, some of which you won’t be able to pronounce. 

Which brings us to the next point.

If you can’t read it, don’t buy it

Simple ingredients are rarely listed under their scientific names, and even when they are, the average consumer can infer what they area, such has referring to aloe vera extract by its scientific name of Aloe Barbadensis. Complex chemical compounds are usually difficult to pronounce. So if a product you are considering has you stuttering as you try to read the list of ingredients, then you can safely assume it’s over-processed and loaded with unnecessary chemicals. 

Pay attention to order

Ingredients are listed according to their level of concentration or ratio within a product. So, if a box of cereal is touted as ‘wholesome’ but goes on to list sugar as the first or second ingredient, then its claims for wholesomeness are far from true. 

The order of the ingredients will reveal the true make-up of any food product. Generally, aim for products where the first two or three ingredients on the list are wholesome, unprocessed, and derived from natural sources – think whole grain versus refined grain and so on.   

It’s all in the serving size

When shopping for food items, pay attention to serving size. Manufactures will sometimes attempt to downplay the high caloric value of a food by reducing portion size. Before you add the item to your grocery cart, consider how likely you are to stop at a single serving. For example, If the serving is 10 chips in a small bag of chips or a single cookie in a pre-set pack of three, how likely are you to stop at a single serving? If you know that you will most likely end up consuming the entire product in one sitting, then when you do the math you will realize that this product is very high in calories and serving size is misleading. 

False claims

From a product’s branding, to it’s placement on the shelf, the choice of aisle, grocery stores and manufacturers have gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that their products are optimally positioned and are eye-catching to the consumer. They are counting on us, to buy more than we came for, by creating enticing packaging. If a product is seen as “healthy”, consumers are more likely to purchase it. Adding the slogan “whole grain” to a sugary cereal shifts its perception from sugary to healthy, even though the sugar content has not changed. 

There are many such false health claims adorning products; from “less fat”, (usually achieved by adding more sugar or gelling agents) to “no artificial flavours added” , “no artificial colors added”, “no sugar added”, “Multigrain”, and “Enriched”, that are all working to hide the fact that a product is highly processed and perhaps loaded with trans fat, preservatives and artificial sweeteners. So, the next time you reach for a bag of “Multigrain” chips, remember to follow the previous tips and check out the ingredient list, to verify how healthy it actually is.

Fresher is better

When all is said and done, fresher is always better. When in doubt, head to the produce aisle and the frozen and refrigerated sections of your grocery store. Foods that are labelled as perishable or stored in the fridge / freezer section of your grocery store are usually a better bet than their shelf-stored counter parts. 

Jarred, canned or pickled produce can maintain its integrity and nutritional benefits, but a review of the ingredient list is necessary to show whether a preserving agent or other chemicals have been added to ensure its longevity. A container of long-life tomato salsa will have additional preservatives and additives to keep it fresh and tasty versus the perishable version that is stored in the fridge. Always aim for short life, perishable versions of the product you are buying if it is available. 

When all is said and done, following these tips and incorporating them into your shopping habits may add a few minutes to your browsing time but will save your body and your unsuspecting family a wealth of undesirable chemicals, additives and preservatives that you can well do without. Taking the time to read ingredients lists will ensure that you are making an informed decision about the items you select and ensures that you are actually buying healthy products and not surrendering to the marketing and promotional strategies of the food industry. Happy Shopping! 

(1): https://www.fmi.org/our-research/supermarket-facts

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