Understanding Ingredients on Food Labels

woman reading food label in store

Food labels are an important source of information about calories and the nutritional value of the foods you eat, a crucial tool in building a heart-healthy diet.

The Nutrition Facts information is always displayed in the same orderly fashion and helps you understand how much of certain nutrients that you need to limit are contained in the product per serving.

What isn’t always so clear is the ingredients listed on foods or drinks.

What do all those huge words mean? Can you always tell when something has a lot of sugar? How about sodium and trans fats? It may be hard to identify ingredients that you want to reduce in your diet to keep it heart healthy, such as saturated and trans fats, sodium, added sugars and cholesterol.

There are a few simple things to remember to help you navigate these lists, said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University’s Department of Nutritional Sciences and an American Heart Association spokeswoman.

“Some ingredients go by names other than what we expect,” Kris-Etherton  said.

“But with a little research you can know what’ you’re eating.”

Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, but that doesn’t always tell the whole story. For example, if a jar of salsa lists tomatoes first, you know there are more tomatoes in the product than anything else.

But when it comes to sodium, added sugars and saturated and trans fats – which in excess can damage your heart health and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke – it can be difficult to tell just how much is in there.

The reason is, these ingredients can go by several names.

There are many terms used for sugar on food labels.

You might see sugar listed as the fourth ingredient in a product and think it’s not so bad. But sugar can also be listed as high-fructose corn syrup or corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup or dehydrated cane juice, to name just a few. Read more about sugar and sweeteners.

Sodium also has several names.

There’s salt, sodium benzoate, disodium or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Learn more about salt and sodium. “Sodium nitrite is a source of salt in our diets,” Kris-Etherton said. “It’s in hot dogs, lunch meats and so on. It’s used to preserve fish and meats and control bacteria, so it has legitimate uses, but we should be aware it contributes to our total salt intake.” This is important to know because too much sodium can raise blood pressure, increasing risk for heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, but the average American consumes twice that much.

Perhaps trickiest of all is trans fats.

You won’t find these listed as trans fats at all, but rather ingredients that contain trans fats: mainly partially hydrogenated oil and hydrogenated oil. Trans fats can elevate your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. These fats raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL).

Some experts say you should choose foods with five or fewer ingredients. While this “five-limit rule” has gotten a lot of attention lately, Kris-Etherton said there’s no reason to complicate your label reading to this degree.

“It’s well-intentioned, but the FDA oversees safety,” Kris-Etherton said. “We have a safe food supply. Ingredients are safe.”

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