How to Read the Ingredients Panel for Maximum Health

ingredient panel

Understanding the ingredient panel is a key part of understanding the risks of packaged foods.

Aside from the synthetic sugars, synthetic fats, and nitrates placed into food to make it last longer, taste better, or in other ways “design” it, thousands of additional other chemicals have been approved for processed foods. The list expands yearly.

In order to limit your exposure to these chemicals, read the ingredient panel on each packaged, processed food. Most added chemicals will be listed in the ingredients, but some will not. Even if you have purchased the same food by the same company for years, periodically check the ingredient panel for changes, especially if the packaging has changed. Companies frequently change ingredients and add or subtract chemicals to improve the flavor, appearance, texture, or shelf life of a product.

Packaging may add words such as “New bolder flavor,” “More creamy,” “Now fewer calories,” “Now extra thick and tasty,” etc.

If the package wording or design has changed, recheck the ingredients to make sure you are still comfortable eating the product.

The ingredient panel includes two important components. One is the nutritional section and the other is the actual list of ingredients. Both sections include very important information, and the more you get comfortable reading and interpreting these panels, the better able you will be to critically evaluate what you are eating. This really is an important process when you are a consumer of processed foods. The nutritional panel has very limited, basic information on the nutritional value of the food, including calories, fat, carbohydrates, and protein content. It also lists the amount of sodium. The more nebulous portion of the nutritional panel is the list of ingredients.

A popular prepared food has an ingredient panel that lists the following:

Ingredients: Enriched macaroni product (wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate (iron), thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1); riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid); Cheese sauce mix: whey, cheddar cheese, whey protein concentrate, maltodextrin, salt, modified food starch (contains less than 2% of sodium tripolyphosphate, citric acid, cream, skim milk, spice, sodium diacetate, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, cayenne pepper, vinegar, salt, garlic, sodium phosphate, sodium acetate, paprika, yeast extract, natural flavor, dried garlic, disodium insinuate and disodium guanylate, paprika extract, beta carotene (color)).

If one removes “food” from this recipe, including wheat flour, whey, cheddar cheese, cream, skim milk, cayenne pepper, vinegar, salt, and garlic, the remaining ingredients include:

Niacin, ferrous sulfate (Iron), thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1); riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid, maltodextrin, modified food starch, sodium tripolyphosphate, citric acid, sodium diacetate, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, sodium phosphate, sodium acetate, natural flavor, disodium insinuate and disodium guanylate, beta carotene (color).

The vitamins listed on an ingredient panel are synthetic nutritional supplements added to processed food to seemingly create a more nutritious product (Table 4). Although these chemical supplements are designed to mimic natural vitamins, the body’s ability to absorb a synthetic vitamin and the vitamin concentration within a processed food can differ substantially from its ability to absorb vitamins within a naturally occurring food source, such as a vegetable.

After removing synthetic vitamins and minerals from the list in the example, the remaining ingredients include:

Maltodextrin, modified food starch, sodium tripolyphosphate, citric acid, sodium diacetate, cellulose gel, cellulose gum, sodium phosphate, sodium acetate, natural flavor, disodium insinuate and disodium guanylate.

Many of these remaining ingredients have no nutritional value and are simply not food.

Table 4. List of synthetic vitamins

Reinoic acid, retinol, retinal – Vitamin A
Beta carotene – (Converted to Vitamin A)
Thiamin mononitrate – Vitamin B1
Riboflavin – Vitamin B2
Niacin, niacinamide – Vitamin B3
Pantothenic acid – Vitamin B5
Pyridoxine, pyridoxamine, pyridoxal – Vitamin B6
Biotin – Vitamin B7
Cyanocobalamin, hydroxycobalamin, methylcobalamin – Vitamin B12
Ascorbic acid – Vitamin C
Calciferol in the forms of cholecalciferol, ergocalciferol – Vitamin D3, Vitamin D2
Alpha tocopherol – Vitamin E
Folic acid – Vitamin B9
Phylloquinone, menaquinone – Vitamin K

Compare the nutritional panel of the prior processed food to an organic alternative:

Ingredients: Organic wheat macaroni, cheddar cheese (cultured pasteurized milk, salt, non-animal enzymes), whey, nonfat milk, butter, salt, cultured whole milk, sodium phosphate, annatto extract for color.

After removing foods, the ingredients remaining include:

non-animal enzymes and sodium phosphate

Non-animal enzymes include a distillate of vegetable-based enzymes, requiring a chemical process for purification. Sodium phosphate is a generic term for salts created by mixing the elements sodium and phosphorus. Sodium phosphates are common chemicals used in food processing to emulsify mixtures so that cheeses and oils blend, improving food texture. Other common emulsifiers include polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose.

Have you ever given a thought to what your body does with the chemicals added to processed food? Even emulsifiers approved for organic food have been implicated in disturbing the intestinal microbiome and may also contribute to intestinal inflammation and metabolic syndromes. It would be safe to say that no one is completely sure of the health effects of the thousands of approved chemical agents or how they interact when mixed together. Even though these chemicals may have been approved by the FDA, approach them with caution and limit how much you ingest. It may not be possible to completely eradicate these chemicals from your diet, but as you become more conscious of what you are eating, you will naturally gravitate toward whole food instead of food with additives and chemical substitutes.

The USDA and FDA require the labeling of most ingredients in processed foods so that consumers can sort of know what they are eating. Unfortunately, though, there are exceptions. Many ingredients do not require labeling, particularly if they are placed into a food product in very small quantities. For example, if a food contains 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, the food label can deceptively read “0” grams of trans fat! My suggestion would be to limit ingestion of processed foods as much as you can. If you do choose to buy pre-packaged foods, opt for products labeled with an expiration date that would be expected if you made a similar product at home. For example, if you baked a batch of cookies, how many days would you expect them to keep fresh? It is only through the addition of preservatives and the use of synthetic fats that a package of cookies in the market can stay fresh for six months or longer.

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