Understanding the Ingredients List

— Written By Alyssa Anderson
en Español / em Português

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How often do you read the ingredients list on your food label? This list provides very valuable information when making the food choice that is right for you. I sometimes hear people mention that they don’t eat anything with ingredients listed that they cannot pronounce. Often, these ingredients that cannot be pronounced are food additives. In general, people tend to like to categorize foods or food groups as all “good” or “bad.” Unfortunately, doing this can cause unnecessary fear around foods that are not harmful. Therefore, when discussing food additives, it is important to understand what they are and their purpose.

Food additives are natural or artificial compounds that are added to the food for numerous reasons. Some of these reasons include: preventing spoilage, reducing the growth of harmful bacteria, thickening liquids, preventing liquids from separating, and adding consistent color. Food additives are overseen by the FDA and undergo extensive research. Current studies show that the benefits of many additives outweigh the potential harm.

Although these long names can be intimidating to the average person, they are not something to instantly fear. In fact, some parodies have been made on the internet around the dangers of “dihydrogen monoxide”, more commonly known as water. These parodies demonstrate the wide range of information available to consumers. This can become very frustrating for some people that are trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle because various sources often conflict in messages. Nutrition and food can become complicated due to different variables. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center is here to help guide community members through these complex areas using evidence-based research, whether it is through nutrition programming or calling our office to ask your question directly.

Not all words that are difficult to pronounce on food labels should be feared because many have beneficial properties. To a similar degree, not all foods that can be easily read are full of health benefits. For example, sugar is an ingredient most people are familiar with. However, it is also one that is recommended to not be on the list of added ingredients because excess sugar intake is linked to an increased risk of diet-related chronic disease. So, next time you pull an item from your pantry, I challenge you to look at the ingredients list and to learn more about those ingredients. These lists are valuable because they allow one to make decisions around food holistically, based on what is important to them.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s goal is to provide the residents of the community with research-based knowledge. For more information on food safety, wellness, and nutrition in Lee County please contact the Family and Consumer Sciences Agent, Alyssa Anderson, MS, RDN, LDN, at 919-775-5624.