Reading the Ingredient List

Families, Food and Fitness November 18, 2009 Print Friendly and PDF

What is really in the food you are eating? Have you ever taken the time to look? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that manufacturers list all of the ingredients in food and beverage products on the package label. On the product label, the ingredients are listed in order of predominance. The ingredient present in the greatest amount is listed first, followed by the rest of the ingredients in descending order.

At times, you may feel as if you are trying to decipher a foreign language as you examine the ingredient list. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when looking at ingredients. If you see the words “partially hydrogenated oil,” the product contains trans fats — an unhealthy fat that should be avoided. Words like “sucrose,” “glucose,” “fructose,” “corn syrup,” and “high fructose corn syrup” indicate types of sugars that are used as sweeteners. “Monosodium glutamate” or MSG is a flavor enhancer that some people may have intolerance to. The example here shows a food that includes partially hydrogenated soybean oil, so it does contain trans fats. It also contains both sugar and high fructose corn syrup, both forms of sugar.

Ingredient List

Being familiar with ingredient lists is especially important for individuals with food allergies. The FDA now requires manufacturers to list, in simple terms, on the product label whether the product contains one or more of the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat. These foods account for 90 percent of all documented food allergies, and this requirement makes it easier for consumers with food allergies to be aware of the products that contain them. However, for individuals with other allergies, it is crucial that they look at ingredient lists.

Although examining the ingredient list is important for individuals with food allergies and intolerances or other chronic health conditions, it can also be beneficial for the average consumer. Being aware of the ingredients in products may change the way you choose your foods.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.