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Understanding Ingredient Lists by Jeanne Rosner, MD

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

Navigating through a grocery store can be challenging. The geography within the store is methodically calculated to encourage customers to linger longer and purchase unwanted food items. There is often pleasing music in the background, impulse items to purchase at the register and a predictable layout. The floorplan of most grocery stores encourages consumers to traverse through the brightly colored packaged food section located in the middle of the store on their path to the milk section, which is often placed in the back corners of the store.

Nutrition science can be confusing and conflicting. However, one salient feature present in most nutrition advice is to eat more whole food, close to nature, in its native form, and reduce and/or eliminate processed food. Food that is processed has fewer nutrients and is of lower quality. Any food that is processed is created in a factory and it is required to have an ingredient list

and a nutrition fact label clearly marked on its packaging. 

Today I want to educate you on how best to understand ingredient lists.

Ingredient lists are arranged in descending order by weight: the first few listed ingredients contribute to the majority of the product.

Avoid items with sugar listed as the first or second ingredient. Any ingredient that ends in –ose is a type of sugar (examples: dextrose, glucose, maltose, sucrose). The processed food industry avoids having to label sugar as one of the first or second ingredients by listing multiple different kinds of sugar in the ingredient list. This tactic prevents any single sugar from being too large a contributor by weight and allows manufacturers to list sugar further down in the ingredient list. There are more than 70 different terms that are used to name sugar. Of the 600,000 items in the American food supply, 80% have added sugars. 

The shorter the ingredient list, the better. Limit your list to five or six ingredients (unless, for example, it is a granola bar with a variety of nuts and seeds). Make sure you can recognize the items on the list. If an ingredient has many syllables and you are unable to pronounce it, you should probably avoid the food. Envision a person in a laboratory wearing a white lab jacket standing in front of different sized glass beakers, some bubbling over with heat, manipulating our food to taste a certain way. This process creates artificial and, often, harmful ingredients.

Avoid items with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Fructose (not found in fruit) and HFCS is not an energy source to the cells in our body. Fructose is digested quickly in the gastrointestinal tract before it gets shuttled to the liver. There, myriad reactions occur, which can ultimately be harmful to human health. Avoid items with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, also known as trans fats. Avoid any food item with ingredients starting with "partially hydrogenated" (soybean oil, corn oil, etc.). Trans fats are artificial, man-made fats that the food industry uses to increase the shelf life of a processed food item. Trans fats can increase your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Also, these fats raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and decrease HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood.

Avoid items with artificial colors. Food dyes are petroleum-derived substances that give color to food. Look at the ingredient list to determine how the processed item has been colored. Artificially colored ingredients will be noted by their color name, such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6, etc. Artificial colors have been listed as a potential cause of hyperactivity in children and may cause allergic or hypersensitivity reactions. As a better alternative to artificial coloring, there are natural ways to impart color to processed food with the use of various fruits and vegetables (for example, beets can be used to create the color red).

Avoid items with artificial flavorings. Artificial flavorings may enhance the flavor of foods, however, they are markers of a highly processed food. Hundreds of chemicals rather than whole, natural ingredients are used to mimic natural flavors. Additionally, some people are sensitive to certain flavoring ingredients. 

As I've mentioned before, I'm a visual learner. I believe if we were given a visual representation of the ingredients in a processed food item, we would likely think twice about eating the food in question. If the ingredient list for Nutella were shown visually, as it is below, rather than with words, I believe we would not be quite so eager to eat Nutella, as often as some of us do.

Bottom Line It is best to eat food that is as close to nature as possible: fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Try to limit consumption of processed food. If you choose to indulge in a processed food, pay close attention to the ingredient list and follow the guidelines listed above.


Purtill, Corinne. "If Nutrition Labels Looked Like This, Your Attempts to Quit Sugar Might Actually Work." Quartz. Jan. 30, 2017.

Jeanne Rosner, MD

Jeanne Rosner is a board-certified anesthesiologist who practiced pediatric anesthesia at Stanford Medical Center for nearly 20 years. In 2011, she began teaching nutrition classes in her son’s 5th-grade science class. It was an “aha” moment for her. She realized that learning and teaching about nutrition, health and wellness in her community was her destiny. 

Since retiring from anesthesia, Jeanne has been a nutrition educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She teaches middle school children the importance of eating food closest to the source, making good food choices and eating in a balanced and moderate way. 

Jeanne started SOUL (seasonal, organic, unprocessed, local) Food Salon in 2014. SOUL Food Salon’s mission is to educate and empower people to be healthier. She holds small gatherings (salons) at which experts in the health and wellness community share their knowledge on how to lead a healthier life.

SOUL Food Salon is proud to partner with FoodCorps, which places passionate nutrition educators in local schools with a desire to transform schools into healthier places for kids to eat, learn and grow.

To subscribe to the SOULFUL Insights health and wellness newsletter click here.

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