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Decoding food labels – Harvard

Much as we may want to eat healthy, it is unlikely that we have a diet that contains NO processed foods. The fact is that they are very convenient. Just open the package and pop it in – the oven – microwave – whatever. So, if we are going to eat them we ought to be able to decipher their labels. The following is from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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Decoding the ingredients list on a food label

Being aware of specific ingredients in a food is a good general practice for everyone but may be especially useful for those with food allergies or intolerances, diabetes, or digestive diseases. In many cases, the longer the ingredients list, the more highly processed a food is. However, an ingredient that is not recognizable or has a long chemical name is not necessarily unhealthful. When scanning the Ingredients listing on a food package, consider the following:

  • The ingredients are listed in order of quantity by weight. This means that the food ingredient that weighs the most will be listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last. [5]
  • Some ingredients like sugar and salt may be listed by other names. For example, alternative terms for sugar are corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, dextrose, malt syrup, molasses, or turbinado sugar. Other terms for sodium include monosodium glutamate or disodium phosphate.
  • If the food is highly processed, it may contain several food additives such as artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. Their ingredient names may be less familiar. Some preservatives promote safety of the food by preventing growth of mold and bacteria. Others help prevent spoilage or “off” flavors from developing. Examples that you may see on the label include:
    • Preservatives—ascorbic acid, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, tocopherols
    • Emulsifiers that prevent separation of liquids and solids—soy lecithin, monoglycerides
    • Thickeners to add texture—xanthan gum, pectin, carrageenan, guar gum
    • Colors—artificial FD&C Yellow No. 6 or natural beta-carotene to add yellow hues
  • Fortified foods contain vitamins and minerals that are added after processing. Either these nutrients were lost during processing, or they were added because they are lacking in the average diet. Examples include B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, niacinamide, folate or folic acid), beta carotene, iron (ferrous sulfate), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), Vitamin D, or amino acids to boost protein content (L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, L-methionine).

Ingredients used widely in the production of highly/ultra-processed foods such as saturated fats, added sugar, and sodium have become markers of poor diet quality due to their effect on heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure. [6,7] It is estimated that ultra-processed foods contribute about 90% of the total calories obtained from added sugars. [4] 

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