Healthy Eating 101: What's in your food?

Food ingredient lists are the place to see if your food has any harmful food additives.


By Aimée Suen, NTP


Don't let the marketing on the front of the box of cereal or crackers mislead you. The ingredient list is the real place to see just how "good" or "healthy" your food is. Located right under the nutrition facts, this list (often a paragraph with processed foods) can be the make it or break it moment for you to decide if you should buy it or not. 

The List 

The ingredients list starts by listing the major ingredients first, and then going down by weight. If you buy a can of beans, beans will be listed first, followed by water, then whatever else is added lower on the list. The lower it is, the less it has been used in comparison to the other ingredients. 

Food Additives 

As you're reading an ingredient list on most processed foods, you'll notice a lot of things with very long, possibly unpronounceable names. If you're unsure what it is, look it up. The fancy name could mean salt, sugar, fat, or it could mean something's added in your food you don't want to eat. 

To take some of the guesswork out of what’s good for you or not, here are some food additives to look out for as you're making healthier food choices: 

Artificial Sweeteners 

Artificial sweeteners are defined by the US National Library of Medicine as chemically processed substances used in place of sugar. They're very low in calories and your body can't digest them, which is why they seem so appealing. Artificial sugar is also much, much sweeter than regular table sugar, ranging from 30-700 times sweeter than sugar

Though less of the artificial sweetener is used because of its intense sweetness, it’s possible that with prolonged exposure, it can change your tastes to be less satisfied by naturally sweet or unsweetened foods. Sweet things also trigger the brain to eat more. A preliminary study has come out stating artificial sweeteners can affect gut bacteria in such a way that it's easier to become obese. Gut bacteria plays a major role in converting your food into fuel and helps you absorb vitamins and minerals as well as works with your immune system. If your gut bacteria is off, you could be at a higher risk for certain diseases. 

Words to look for: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose 

Artificial Colors 

We eat with our eyes. When food is brightly colored, we're more attracted to it. Nature can make some amazing colors in food, but they don’t last as long as those made in a lab. 

Though the colors are pretty, artificial colorings have been classified as animal carcinogens, causing brain, kidney, and bladder tumors in animals. Artificial colorings can cause allergic reactions. Some of the artificial colors the FDA has approved have even been banned in European countries

Words to look for: FD&C Blue No. 1, FD&C Blue No. 2, FD&C Green No. 3, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, FD&C Red No. 3, FD&C Red No. 40, FD&C Yellow No. 5, FD&C Yellow No. 6 

Note: The FD&C prefix isn't always on the label. Yellow No. 5 and FD&C Yellow No. 5 are the same thing. 

Partially Hydrogenated Oils/Trans Fat 

The food industry is constantly trying to find ways to increase the shelf life of their products. One of the ways the food industry has accomplished that is with partially hydrogenated oils. Hydrogen is added to heated vegetable oil, converting healthier fatty acids into more unhealthy fatty acids, including saturated and trans fat. Trans fat raises your LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and lowers your HDL cholesterol (the good kind). Changing your LDL to HDL ratio in this way can lead to blocked arteries and heart conditions. A food product can advertise being "Trans Fat Free" and still have .5 grams of trans fat. They can also have .05 or less grams of trans fat and legally state the food has 0 grams of trans fat. If the food says it has partially hydrogenated oils in it, you’ll most likely be eating trans fat, regardless of what the nutrition fact says. 

Words to look for: "Partially Hydrogenated" paired with any oil, trans fat percentages in the nutrition facts. 

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HCFS) 

HFCS is a corn-based sweetener  made up of fructose and glucose, similar to table sugar. Table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose while HFCS is either 42% fructose and 58% glucose or 55% fructose and 45% glucose. The higher fructose to glucose ratio is used primarily in soft drinks; the slightly lower fructose ratio is in processed foods and other beverages. 

Your body metabolizes HFCS and table sugar (also called sucrose), very similarly. You can find HFCS in a lot of food, some that don’t even taste that sweet. Because HFCS can be hiding in so many foods, it could also be adding a lot of sugar (glucose and fructose) to your diet.Diets higher in fructose also lead to insulin resistance, meaning your body no longer uses insulin effectively. High sugar consumption can lead to weight gain, higher blood pressureand other health issues. 

Words to look for: High Fructose Corn Syrup 

Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite 

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are popular preservatives used in processed and cured meats like bacon, lunch meat, jerky, and hot dogs. They help keep the bright colors of the processed meats and also protect it from spoiling or infection. When nitrates break down in your body, they can turn into nitrosamines. Studies have linked nitrosamines and increased processed cured meat consumption to certain cancers. Most processed meats are also higher in saturated fat and salt, which can have a negative impact on your arteries, heart, and overall health. Nitrates are naturally occurring in some vegetables, but studies have not shown any link to nitrate-rich vegetables and cancer. The other vitamins and minerals in the vegetables can inhibit the formation of nitrosamines. 

Words to look for: Nitrates, sodium nitrate, nitrite, sodium nitrite 


BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) are additives to prevent foods from spoiling. BHA has been classified as a carcinogen under California's Prop 65 and has caused tumor growth in animals. While BHT isn't classified as a carcinogen, both BHT and BHA c, messing up hormone production and responses. Hormones play a crucial role in weight loss and weight gain, so if your health and fitness goals are weight related, consider eliminating and avoiding food products with BHT and BHA. 

Words to look for: BHA, BHT, butylated hydroxyanisole, butylated hydroxytoluene 

What’s in Your Food? 

With some processed foods, you're eating much more than you bargained for. Now that you're more aware of certain additives that can affect your health, you can be on the look out for them in your home and in your pantry. 

How many of the foods you own have one or more of these additives? Consider removing these foods from your house and diet. If all of the names and abbreviations are confusing or overwhelming, remember this: The longer an ingredient list is, the more likely you’re going to find any one of the food additives mentioned above. The shorter the list, or if it has no list because it’s a whole fruit, vegetable, or protein, the better. 

When you're on your next grocery run, read the ingredient list of the food you’re about to buy. What are you about to eat? How will the ingredients in the food affect your health and fitness goals? If you’re unsure, trying less processed and whole foods. The cleaner you can eat, the better off your body will be. 

Healthy Eating 101 returns to answer the age-old question of how to afford cleaner, less processed foods without breaking the bank. 

Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on InstagramTwitter and Pinterest.

Soda Photo Credit: Leemonton/

Jun 6, 2015

I just don't like it when I can't pronounce the dang ingredient 😀