The Mysteriously Long List of Ingredients

The Mysteriously Long List of Ingredients

Nutrition labels can leave you asking yourself, “Why.” Specifically, “why is it that this simple food item contains over 15 ingredients?” Food companies often add more ingredients than you would at home for flavor and preservative purposes. They will also use words that the general public isn’t familiar with to cover-up ingredients they don’t want you to know are in their product. However, as a consumer it is important to know what you are purchasing and feeding to your family and yourself. In this article, you’ll learn which words to look out for as well as learn which brands are better to purchase based on their ingredients list.

How to understand the ingredients in your food

Ingredient labels with a bunch of words you don’t know can be really confusing. Some words sound scary but are actually safe, and others sound safe but can be detrimental to your health. We’ve deciphered the code words so the ingredient list will be less daunting.


Corn syrup, cane juice, molasses, dextrose, maltose, and honey.

Sugar can be especially tricky. Companies will use multiple different types of sugar in a product so that the different forms are spread throughout the ingredient list, making it appear as though sugar isn’t the main ingredient! Skim through the entire list to see how packed full of sugar an item really is. You might think an ingredient like honey or brown sugar is less processed, but at the end of the day, your body processes them all the same. They are all added sugars with little nutritive value that add excess calories.

Look out for sugar traps in these products: energy bars, yogurt, juice, coffee drinks, cereals, and tomato sauce


Baking powder, baking soda, Sodium alginate, disodium phosphate, sodium benzoate.

Just like sugar, you need to add up all the names that could be the same as salt. Look out especially for the word “sodium.” High salt intake can be unhealthy, especially for those with high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, we should limit salt to 1500 mg, which is less than 2/3 a teaspoon of salt.1

Look out for salt traps in these products: frozen meals, canned vegetables, soup, cold cuts, beef and turkey jerky, pizza, and bread. Total sodium must be indicated on the nutrition label, so you can easily spot exactly how much sodium is in one serving of a product.

Spot the salt! Sodium related phrases:

Less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving and contains no sodium chloride
Very Low Sodium
35 milligrams or less per serving
140 milligrams or less per serving
Reduced (or less) sodium
At least 25 percent less sodium per serving than the usual sodium level
Light (for sodium-reduced products)
If the food is "low calorie" and "low fat" and sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving
Light in sodium
If sodium is reduced by at least 50 percent per serving


    Natural flavors, citric acid, methyl salicitate.

    “Natural Flavoring” means the real flavoring (in many occasions this would be fruit), is left out. Although these items are generally safe, they are normally found in junk food or overly processed food.

    Artificial colors

    Blue 1 and 2, green 3, red 3 and 40, orange B, yellow 5 and 6.
    STAY AWAY from artificial colors. These are synthetic chemicals that are not found in nature. A lot of these artificial colors can also be found in pet food. You don’t need to cook special meals for your pet, but they also deserve to be fed artificial color-free foods!


    Soy lecithin and mono- and diglycerides, cellulose, carrageenan, modified food starch, polyglycerols, and xanthan are a few of the different types of emulsifiers that can be added into foods. These are used to keep ingredients, such as oils and fats, from separating.


    These substances are extracted from certain types of seaweed and are often used in food products as a fat replacer due to gelling and thickening properties. Currently, the USDA does not place any restrictions on carrageenan, but this may be something to look into yourself and make your own informed decision about.2

    Now that you’ve learned what some of the ingredients really are, here’s a quick lesson on Food Additive Safety:

    Food Addictive Safety. Check out all the facts on food additives from Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).3

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