There has been quite a lot of discussion in the United States (U.S.) surrounding the new Nutrition Facts Label (NFL), especially given the January 1, 2020 deadline for large companies to update their products’ packaging. However, perhaps just as important as being able to read the nutrients provided by a food or beverage is understanding all of the ingredients inside.
The U.S. government requires disclosure of all ingredients contained in packaged foods and beverages via a highly-regulated ingredient list placed below the NFL. So, while some may complain that they “don’t know what is in their food,” when it comes to packaged foods and beverages, the problem is rarely that the ingredients aren’t listed. Rather, the issue lies in a lack of understanding of how to read and interpret the ingredient list.
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a database of over 3,000 different food ingredients, known as the “Substances Added to Food” inventory. That is a ton of ingredients to keep track of, even for the most savvy food connoisseur! These ingredients are added to improve the taste, texture, appearance of foods and beverages. Importantly, they can also improve safety, for example indirect additives that prevent food packaging components from leaching into the product, as well as enhance the nutritional value of products.
While we’ve previously tackled how best to assess a label for nutrients like calories, carbohydrates, fat and sodium, the ingredient list can also offer great insight into a product – if you know how to read it. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you interpret the next ingredient you find yourself curious about.
Starting from the Top
Food manufacturers must display every ingredient used in a product on the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the most prevalent ingredient in the food, and ending with the least prevalent. For example, an ingredients list for popcorn might read “Corn, Vegetable Oil, Salt.” Corn is used in the greatest amount and therefore is listed first, followed by oil and then salt, which is used in the least amount. Another point to consider is that some ingredients may be grouped together, such as “natural flavors” and “artificial colors.”
When in doubt, look it up! While a long, Latin-derived word can look intimidating, taking a few seconds to research the ingredient will most likely simplify it. As noted by the FDA “Every food we eat – whether a just-picked strawberry or a homemade cookie – is made up of chemical compounds that determine flavor, color, texture and nutrient value.” So while the word ascorbic acid may look odd, it is simply the scientific term for vitamin C.
Putting Length into Context
The length of an ingredient list doesn’t necessarily determine the healthfulness of foods! The FDA requires that the ingredient list includes all sub-ingredients that are used to make a single ingredient. For example, baking powder would show up on an ingredient list as: baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch). Imagine how long an ingredient list for a whole grain baked item would be! By law, nutrient-dense products with a combination of ingredients and flavors are obligated to include long, scientifically-accurate ingredient lists.
Fortified or Enriched
On grain products such as cereals, breads, or corn grits, you may find a collection of ingredients following the phrase “Vitamins & Minerals.” These ingredients are referred to in the nutrition world as “micronutrients” and include vitamins A, C, D and E, magnesium, zinc, niacin and calcium. Micronutrients have been added to foods since 1924, when the mineral iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter. Following the success of iodized salt, the FDA instituted several other fortification mandates meant to enhance the nutrition of foods and prevent widespread malnutrition. One of FDA’s most successful fortification requirements has been the addition of folic acid to grain and cereal products since 1998, which has been shown to protect against instances of birth defects to the brain, spine and spinal cord. This mandate led to a 25% reduction in neural tube defects between 1995 – 1996 and 1999 – 2000 (CDC).