3 Essential Things to Look for on the Ingredient List

Make shopping a breeze by running all packaged foods through this quick check list.

1. Short lists

When you find a packaged food in the supermarket with a long list of ingredients on the label, just set it back on the shelf and look for a simpler version of the food. (We’re talking here about the “Ingredients” part of the label. “Nutrition Facts” is another part, and more about that later.) The alarming truth is, many of those ingredients are various kinds of sugars and chemical additives, and they’re not put there for you — they’re there to benefit the company that processes the food. They “enhance” the looks, taste, or shelf life — which is all about marketing and shipping and not at all about your health. Most additives aren’t known to be harmful (although the health effects of some are still open to question), but they aren’t about nutrition or taste as nature intended taste to be. In fact, one of their main purposes is to make up for a lack of those things. So check the list of ingredients every time. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, says that almost always, the shorter the better.

2. Water

Water is the magic ingredient in prepared foods, and if it’s first on the list of ingredients, that’s a clue that there’s a long list of additives to follow to give that water some taste and texture. You might not be surprised to see water at the top of the list of ingredients in soups. After all, soup does take a lot of water. It’s more surprising to find it so prominent in SpaghettiOs. Many, many salad dressings contain more water than anything else, and since oil and water don’t mix, it takes a bunch of additives to hold everything together. Water is cheap, so the food industry likes it.

3. MSG

Check out the ingredient list on the labels of prepared foods — on soups, for example. Keep reading, because it’s pretty far down on a long list (although if there is no MSG, that’s usually prominently mentioned at the top). MSG (monosodium glutamate) is sometimes listed under its own name but often under other names, among them hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast, and sodium caseinate. MSG is a synthetic version of the substance umami, as it is known in Japan, which occurs naturally in some foods, including Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and mushrooms. MSG, widely used in Asian cooking, went out of favor when it became associated with headaches and other unpleasant symptoms. Now many Asian restaurants proudly advertise “No MSG” on their menus, but the food industry still sneaks it in as a flavor enhancer. So if you’re concerned about MSG, look for it under all of its names.


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