Making informed food decisions: Understanding ingredient lists

WATCH ABOVE: Ingredient lists are tricky to decipher. Global News’ Carmen Chai walks readers through common words that confuse consumers. (Animation created by Andrew Miller.)

Monosodium glutamate, hydrogenated oils, soy lecithin and modified food starch. These common items on ingredient lists can sound like a foreign language. When you’re skimming through the wording, it may feel like you need a translator at your side.

“It can get confusing when you’re looking at an ingredient list because a lot of the words are words you won’t know,” said Amanda Nash, a Heart and Stroke Foundation registered dietitian who’s in charge of community nutrition and health promotion in Manitoba.

“It’s really encouraging as a dietitian that people look at labels in the first place. It’s important to understand what’s in our food but confusing labels can be misleading. Some words sound dangerous but are actually safe ingredients and vice-versa,” said Kate Comeau, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada.

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READ MORE: 6 misconceptions about nutrition and healthy eating

Nash and Comeau walk readers through items that are often on ingredient lists and what they mean:

The basics: Where an ingredient shows up on the list depends on how much of it makes up the product. The first ingredient on a can of tomato sauce, for example, should be tomatoes.

But this general rule of thumb gets murky because certain ingredients are listed separately – sugar could be provided in various forms, so dehydrated cane sugar might turn up as one of the primary items on a juice box, while agave nectar and high-fructose corn syrup may also make appearances later on. In this case, you’re better off looking at the Nutrition Facts label to see how much sugar (or sodium and fat) may be in the product’s serving size.

(Infographic by Michael Collins, Global News)

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Would sugar by any other name taste as sweet? Glucose fructose, cane juice extract, maltose, dextrose, the laundry list goes on and on when it comes to sugar. Right now, both natural and added sugars are grouped together on the nutrition label but that’s slated to change as Health Canada ushers in tweaks.

“There are so many different sources of sugar, and they’re dispersed throughout the ingredients list,” Comeau said. Sugar may not appear at the forefront of a list, but that doesn’t mean the food isn’t packed with the sweet stuff.

READ MORE: How much sugar should you be eating? How to follow WHO’s guidelines

Brown rice syrup may sound healthy, but it’s still sugar at the end of the day.

Brown sugar, honey, corn syrup, maple, fruit puree concentrate – these are all sweeteners that pack on calories. All added sugars offer little nutritional value.

“You have to be a bit of a detective and look for these specific words to know if there’s added sugars in there,” Nash said.

A dozen (or more) different ways to say salt: Sodium alginate, disodium phosphate, sodium benzoate – who knew these were all fancy ways to say salt?

Monosodium glutamate is MSG, sodium bicarbonate is baking soda and sodium nitrate is what keeps our hot dogs, deli meats and bacon preserved and tasty.

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This is another case where consumers need to skim through the list to see how many words are synonyms for salt. They can also refer to the Nutrition Facts panel to get a bigger picture of how salty the food is.

READ MORE: Hold that salt! Top 5 foods packed with sodium

Too much salt can lead to health problems like high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Most Canadians eat about 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day – that’s more than double the amount we need. Healthy adults should aim for about 1,500 milligrams.

To put it in perspective, 1,500 mg is a little more than half of a teaspoon of salt.

Whole grains or whole wheat? These two terms get mixed up a lot – multigrain means that the product in hand has many different grains – corn, rice, wheat, barley, for example. Whole grain is what consumers should be looking for because it includes the outer skin of the kernel (the bran), the vitamin-packed, protein and fat-rich sprout (or the germ), and the endosperm packed with minerals and carbohydrates.

Nash said that sometimes brown bread’s ingredients list will name whole wheat as its primary ingredient. Consumers could pick up a loaf of rye bread only to find that all purpose flour is the first ingredient with rye flour making an appearance later on.

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READ MORE: 5 lifestyle changes to improve your heart’s health

“Enriched wheat flour and unbleached wheat flour are both words for white flour,” Comeau said. If you look at the ingredients list for bread and spot either of these options, it’s not as beneficial as whole grain flour.

Fats and oils: Butter, coconut oil, hydrogenated fats, palm or palm kernel oil and shortening are all saturated and trans fat.

Trans fat is made when a liquid vegetable oil is changed into solid fat. It’s usually added to processed goods (think of cookies, cakes and frozen dinners) to make them tastier and helps keep the food stay fresh longer, Nash said.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says Canadians should limit trans fats to about five per cent of your daily fat intake. About 20 to 30 per cent of calories should come from fat. For a woman, that’s about 45 to 75 grams, or 60 to 105 for a man, per day.

READ MORE: Fat but fit? New research debunks ‘healthy obesity’ theory

Tinkering with texture: That smooth texture in salad dressings, yogurt and peanut butter all come from emulsifiers and fat replacers.

Emulsifiers include soy lecithin and mono- and diglycerides while common fat replacers include modified food starch, polydextrose and xanthan gum.

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“This is when consumers ask for a low fat version but still want a creamy texture. Modified corn starch is used to get a thick consistency without added fat,” Comeau said.

READ MORE: Would a trans fat ban in the U.S. affect Canadian consumers?

Artificial flavours and food colours: You might spot butter flavouring, vanilla extract, citric acid and methyl salicylate in most of your processed goods. These add flavour to the food.

Caramel colouring, betacarotene, Red No. 40 and Yellow No. 5 are examples of food colouring. During the production process, food may lose its colour because of changes in temperature or storage conditions. Manufacturers try to keep the food appetizing by dressing it up with colour again.

Sources: Health Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Dietitians of Canada, Food Insight, American Heart Association, Food and Drug Administration.

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