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What’s in Your Food? Navigating the ingredients on a food label for a healthier you!

posted Aug 20, 2019, 6:52 AM by Evangelina DiSpirito, RDN, E-RYT
By Evangelina DiSpirito, RDN, LDN E-RYT

Do you truly know what’s in your packaged food, beverage or supplement? Whether it’s convenience foods or processed power shakes of the latest health craze, reading the food label is vital to your health.  This is especially true if you are consuming protein bars, powders or energy drinks daily, which potentially could exceed the amounts the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes as a safe threshold. 

The FDA upgraded the food label to help consumers make more informed food choices.  The bolder and bigger print on a nutrition facts label makes it easier to know the amount of calories, fat, sodium and carbohydrates we are eating, per serving size listed.  However, the ingredients in a particular food, which are in the “fine print” on the label, are not so bold or clear and can potentially be the root cause of headaches, acid reflux, joint pain and even worsen existing health conditions, like diabetes.  The FDA does regulate the safety of the ingredients in foods, but some individuals may experience sensitivities if they consume in excess.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of these ingredients listed in the fine print of a food label.

Ingredients are listed in order of weight, from the highest to lowest amount of a particular ingredient.  For example, if “Olive oil mayo” lists soybean oil as the first ingredient, then the mayo contains more soybean oil than olive oil in it.   This is important if you have a soy allergy or have to limit soy due to interactions with medication, such as for a thyroid condition.

Identifying the keywords for sugar, fat, sodium and potential allergens in the ingredients can help stave away common physical complaints.  For example, if you consistently have digestive problems such as stomach bloat, constipation, diarrhea, or indigestion, this could be remedied by limiting the amount of hidden sugar alcohols, dairy and gluten in certain foods.

Let’s take a look at some of the keywords to help us identify added sugars, fats and sodium.

HIDDEN SUGARS  Based on the link between excess consumption of sugar and heart disease as well as diabetesthe American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (24-25 grams) of added sugar for women, and no more than 9 teaspoons (36 -38 grams) of added sugar for men.  To put this in perspective, a 24 oz Regular Coke has 65 grams of sugar (16 teaspoons) of added sugar!  Sugar contains calories and increases blood sugar, which can lead to weight gain and diabetes.

Keywords to find sugar under ingredients:  Words ending in “ose” like fructose, maltose, sucrose, dextrose, as well as other names: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, malt barley, honey, molasses, agave nectar, cane juice, and fruit juice.

Potential Health Risks:  Excessive sugar can raise your blood sugar after consumption, regardless if it’s natural or processed.  Consistently high blood sugar in the body can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain and diabetes.

 Sugar Substitutes have zero to small amounts of calories and don’t raise blood sugar, however, over consumption can affect long-term health.

Keywords to find sugar substitutes are: Sugar alcohols (mannitol, xylitol, sorbitol); artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, and more natural sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit.  

Potential Health Risk: Having high amounts of sugar alcohols can lead to digestive problems.  High consumption of aspartame has been linked to headaches and inflammation in the body.1  Sucralose has been linked to diminished good bacteria in the gut.2  Poor gut health has been linked to a weakened immune system.  In fact, sugar substitutes are much sweeter than sugar and can sometimes increase your sweet cravings, which can lead to overeating. 

Try this to sweeten:  Sweetened beverage or foods with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or fresh fruit purees, such as apple sauce, bananas or prunes.  Look for stevia and monk fruit that do not have added “sucralose or dextrose” to sweeten your beverages and foods.   Lower your sweet tooth by opting for less sugar in recipes.

HIDDEN FATS:  Trans fats do not have to be listed in the food label if the food has less than .5 grams of trans fat per serving size, even if the product still contains trans-fat.  

Keyword to find the trans fats:  Partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, margarine. 

Potential Health Risks: This is an example of an ingredient that was FDA-approved as safe, but was subsequently taken off the approved list due to links with insulin resistance, heart disease, even cancer.

Try this to increase good fats:  Olive oil, avocado in recipes that call for fat.  Coconut oil has been shown to increase good HDL and lower triglycerides.

HIDDEN SODIUM:    Excess consumption of sodium in our diet can lead to high blood pressure and can cause us to retain water, which leads to swelling.  The amount of total sodium should be listed on the food label in the number of milligrams per serving.   Limit your sodium to 2,300 mg or 1,500 mg if you are over the age of 50 or have elevated blood pressure.  

Keywords in the ingredients:  sodium nitrates, sodium chloride, triphosphate sodium, sodium benzoate, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).  

Potential Health Risks:  Some individuals may have sensitivities to MSG and can experience headaches.  Individuals on blood pressure medication can also have adverse effects.

Try this to flavor foods:  Instead of using salt to add flavor, try fresh herbs and spices to enhance the taste of foods.  Morton’s lite salt is good because it does contain potassium which can lower blood pressure.  Be cautious with certain blood pressure medication.

Take Away Message

The best practice is to make recipes from fresh ingredients and eat less processed foods.  The take away for eating processed foods is that in small doses, sugar alcohols, sweeteners and even sodium ingredients can be safe for most individuals.  If you experience physical discomfort after eating, make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to identify if dietary reasons are the cause of your discomfort.  Find a Dietitian at . For more information on how the FDA regulates food safety, log on to


1. American Heart Association 

2. Corrigendum for "Revisiting the safety of aspartame" by Arbind Kumar Choudhary and Etheresia Pretorius Nutrition Reviews. 2017; 75(9): 718-730. Nutr Rev. 2018. Schiffman SS, Nagle HT.

3. “Assessing the in vivo data  on  low/no-calorie sweeteners and the gut microbiota”by Schiffman, Nage HT. Food Chem Toxicol. 2019 Jul 24:110692.  Food Chem Toxicology.