nourishing traditions + sustainable habits

Decoding Food Labels: 3 Simple Tips to Understanding Ingredients

A general rule of thumb is that if the front label on the item of food claims it is healthy, it probably isn’t. A healthy food normally doesn’t need to advertise itself as such because it’s obviously healthy.

Because food marketers have begun using more and more tricks to get us to buy their products, we as consumers need to be as savvy as ever. Learning to read and understand labels is your biggest tool and help when it comes to eating healthier.

This is a new series I’m going to write about every week for a while. This week to introduce the series I wanted to focus on learning how better identify the healthier foods from the unhealthy ones by knowing how to decode the list of ingredients.

Checking the back of the label for the food’s ingredients is one of the most important things to do when determining whether you should eat something or not. I never buy a product without reading the ingredient list.


Here are some tips to help you decode the list of ingredients on the back of the package:


The order of the ingredients is important.

They are ordered by quantity so the first item on the list is what the manufacturer put most of in the food. It’s always important to pay close attention to the first 3 ingredients as they form the bulk of the food.

So here on this label of a Chinese stir fry sauce the first 3 ingredients are: water, glucose-fructose syrup (another name for sugar) and sugar. So if 2 of the first 3 ingredients are sugar, this food is pretty much just sugar-water. You know this is not a product that you want to be eating.

Often you will find that manufactures add multiple types of sugar to their products so they don’t have to list sugar as the first few ingredients. So even if sugar isn’t one of the first few ingredients on the list, if you were to add up the percentages of all the types of sugar, it would move it to the top of the list.



The shorter the list of ingredients  the better.

Most of the food you eat should not include more than one ingredient and will most likely not have a label at all because it’s obvious. A fresh apple is an apple and nothing else.

So when checking out the ingredient list of the more processed stuff you are buying like bread, canned and jarred products, etc even if they look like just tomatoes, check out the ingredients.

The smaller the list of ingredients generally means it is better for you. Try to stick with items that have no more than 5 ingredients.

This package of tortilla has a long list of ingredients. But, it can be misleading because they list wheat flour, but in parenthesis there are 5 ingredients included, not just wheat flour. If I’m being technical they are added nutrients so it looks like they are using a fortified wheat flour, but it’s just something to keep an eye on. And if I’m honest, I don’t love things that need to be fortified because it means they were first stripped of their nutrients and now have to have synthetic ones added back in. But back to the tortillas, they have about 27 ingredients if you count them separately.

Now these pita┬ábreads are a much healthier option because they only have 5 ingredients. Now keep in mind, these are just better than the tortillas. They still contain preservatives that aren’t that good for us, but at least there is only one of them in the pita.

It’s important to familiarise yourself with the preservatives and inform yourself of the risks, but I will be going into that in more detail in another post.



Look for ingredients you recognise and avoid those you don’t recognise.

I generally tend to stay away from products that have ingredient names I don’t recognise. Often times though you may find me googling some ingredient while I’m standing there in the grocery store. Yes, I’m that annoying shopper holding up traffic. But these manufacturers are putting so many harmful chemicals into our foods these days that it is imperative to be informed.

You can be safe if you just pick foods that you recognise the ingredients as real food that occur naturally in nature. Like this tin of apples, 100% apples.

On the other hand, be careful not to just expect that a tin of fruit or vegetable will just be that and nothing else. You have to check the ingredients.

This tin of chickpeas also have sodium metabisulphite added to them, another preservative that isn’t the best and can cause allergic reactions in some people, which is why it’s in bold.

All in all when checking ingredients, it’s best to go with ones you recognise as real food not chemicals.




So as sad as it is, don’t trust the front of the package when it’s says its heart healthy, the healthy choice or anything like that. Flip it over and check that back and take by the power. You determine if that product is healthy for you, don’t let the manufacturers tell you what’s healthy. All they want to do is sell products, they don’t care a bit about your health.

I hope you enjoyed this little introduction into my new series focusing on better understanding food labels. Come by next Friday for another post.
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