Ingredient statements

By Karin Boode, PhD

The last piece of information on a nutrition label is the ingredient statement. Although these lists do not give you quantitative information, they may give you facts that influence your choice. Let’s take a look at Chicken Carbonara again to see how it works:

(1)BLANCHED FETTUCCINI ( WATER , SEMOLINA, WHEAT GLUTEN), (2)SKIM MILK,

(3)COOKED CHICKEN TENDERLOIN (CHICKEN TENDERLOINS, WATER, SEASONING [MODIFIED CORN STARCH, SUGAR, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, YEAST EXTRACT, DEXTROSE, SPICE, ONION POWDER, GARLIC POWDER, PAPRIKA], SOYBEAN OIL, ISOLATED SOY PROTEIN, SALT, SODIUM PHOSPHATES),

(4)WATER,

(5) ASPARAGUS,

2% OR LESS OF ONIONS, SOYBEAN OIL, PARMESAN AND ASIAGO CHEESE BLEND WITH FLAVOR (PARMESAN CHEESE [CULTURED MILK, SALT, ENZYMES], ASIAGO CHEESE [CULTURED MILK, SALT, ENZYMES], ENZYME MODIFIED PARMESAN CHEESE [CULTURED MILK, WATER, SALT, ENZYMES], WHEY, SALT), BACON (CURED WITH:  WATER , SALT, SUGAR, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, SODIUM ERYTHORBATE, SODIUM NITRITE),MODIFIED CORNSTARCH, SEA SALT,CHICKEN FLAVOR (SALT, YEAST EXTRACT, MALTODEXTRIN, CHICKEN POWDER, FLAVOR, SOY SAUCE [SOYBEAN, WHEAT, SALT]), POTATO STARCH, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, ROASTED RED PEPPER PUREE, DRIED CREAM EXTRACT, PARSLEY, YEAST EXTRACT, SUGAR, GARLIC PUREE, MONO- & DIGLYCERIDES, SPICES, SEASONING (WHEAT STARCH, EXTRACTS OF ANNATTO AND TURMERIC COLOR, NATURAL FLAVOR),XANTHAN GUM, LACTIC ACID, CALCIUM LACTATE.

I numbered (the first 5) and highlighted the ingredients that are composites, to make it a little easier to read. Ingredients have to be listed in descending order by weight. This does not apply to ingredients that are present in quantities of 2% or less by weight.

As you can see, chicken tenderloin is the 3rd ingredient on the list. And in the previous post about nutrition labels, we already calculated that chicken makes up at most 14% of the Chicken Carbonara. That means we also know that asparagus are somewhere between 2 and 14% in weight of the total recipe. Water is a different story, because water is also available in this product through other sources as you can see from the list.

Not all the information on the list is as straight forward as this first example. Manufacturers often use this list to convince consumers that the product is healthier than it really is. A good example are sugars. In order to shift sugars farther down the list, manufactures frequently decide to use a combination of sweeteners. They may decide to use sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown sugar, dextrose and other sugars to make sure none of them are present in large enough quantities to earn a top position in the ingredient list. And we already mentioned that if an ingredient is in the recipe at less than 2% by weight, it can show up anywhere after the 2% or less declaration. Sugar alcohols are a typical example of this strategy.

Another thing to watch out for is minuscule amounts of great sounding ingredients. In foods, companies pad the list with healthy sounding fruits, herbs, and “superfoods” that may only be present in extremely small amounts. Having a super-healthy ingredient appear at the end of an ingredient list is practically meaningless.

Something else to watch out for is innocent names for undesirable ingredients. Yeast extracts sounds like a perfectly safe ingredient, right? Are you allergic to the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG)? Listing MSG as yeast extract avoids having to include MSG on the list.

The same can be said for partially hydrogenated oils, which is a different way of declaring the unwanted trans fats.

How about the ingredient, Carmine? Doesn’t sound too bad, right? It’s a food coloring that is sometimes used in juices or yogurts to make them red. It’s made from the smashed bodies of the Cochineal and Polished Cochineal Beetle!

Last, but not least, don’t let the name of the product mislead you. Sometimes the name of a product has nothing to do with what’s in the product. For instance, a Guacamole dip can be made with hydrogenated oil and green coloring, and never have seen an avocado.

I hope that you realize that there is a wealth of information hidden in plain view on nutrition labels. If you are buying a product for the first time, make sure to check the label so you know what you are buying.

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Comments 2

  1. Dona McLaughlin

    Amazing, and scary. Thanks for this information, it helps to know some of the ingredients that appear to be OK, but aren’t.
    Now, if we could only find out what ingredients are in restaurant food!

  2. Martha Schooley

    I would just feel guilty if I knew what was in the restaurant food because the meals are often full of salt, butter and carbs which make it so tasty. Also they serve lots of bread on the table which is what I seldom eat at home.
    I’ve been checking food labels for year, especially for the sodium content. But I now realize I’d better check more closely.

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