Decoding Ingredients Labels: Why it's Important to Read them and What to Look for


Reading labels can be a tricky time! With so many claims, colors, new and foreign words, and numbers to look at on packages, what is a well-meaning shopper to do? In a culture of restriction diets and weight loss gimmicks, it is at times difficult to understand which products are true whole foods and which used to be. Learn to decode packages with confidence and become a label reading expert with these top tips.

Bassem decoding ingredient labels with unhealthy processed food
  1. Avoid looking at the front of the package! The health claims are meant to confuse and distract from what’s really hiding inside

  2. Instead of counting calories, protein, and carbs count chemicals, preservatives, and additives

  3. Focus on what matters most- ingredients! Quality will always be more important than quantity. Whole plant foods provide a ton of quality nutrition and are naturally low in calories and fat. The goal is for plants to be a major or primary source of nutrition, when buying processed foods it is sometimes difficult to tell which are and which are not. By law in the United States, ingredients must be listed in descending order- or, from most to least. This means that the first 5 ingredients are the majority of will be consumed. When starting to read ingredients, we recommend focusing on these first 5, then transitioning to focusing on the entire list, which hopefully is not too long! We recommend focusing on and avoiding the following ingredients in all their hidden forms:

    Sugar- There are nearly 300 names for this addictive ingredient that makes you crave more and more of the foods it contains. When shopping for packaged foods, keep an eye out for these common names:

    • Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated cane juice and confectioner's sugar

    • Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup and rice syrup.

    • Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl malitol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin and maltose.

    • Refined and processed grains- These cause the same type of blood sugar spike and fall that sugar can and can also increase cravings. Look for healthy whole grains to add fiber to your meals, vitamins to your day, and more nutrition to your life! When grains are processed, they have had the fiber, vitamins, healthy fats, and minerals removed, making them a concentrated source of starch. If the package claims it contains multi-grains, is made with whole grains, or has a certain number of grains, it is very likely processed. Some sneaky ways companies add processed grains in packaged products are by calling them:

      • Flour- if it does not say the whole grain version of the ingredient (oats, brown rice, WHOLE wheat, etc.) it is processed. 

      • Starch

      • Enriched

      • Unbleached

    • Processed fats- Just as these prevent spoiling and increase the shelf life of foods they are found in: desserts, baked goods, fried foods, breads, and chips, refined or trans fats can do the same in our large and small arteries, which can cause pain, heart attack, and stroke. Stay away from these heart-harming processed fats:

      • Shortening, hydrogenated, and interesterified oils

    • Heavy salt- Salt adds flavor and minerals to our food, which balances out our electrolytes, but too much of a good thing can be bad. When we consume too much salt, it raises blood pressure, causes water retention, can increase food cravings, cause dehydration, and increase chances of heart attack and stroke. Salt hides under many names also. The key with this natural additive is to avoid consuming too much. My general rule is to avoid products that contain more than two forms of salt in the first five ingredients. Some of these tricky names are:

      • Sodium, Sodium citrate, sodium nitrate, Celery Salt, Garlic Salt, Onion Salt, Seasoning Salt, Rock Salt, Yeast Extract, Sodium, Bicarbonate/Ascorbate, Baking Powder, Monosodium glutamate (MSG), Smoked , Marinated, teriyaki,  pickled, soy sauce, Cured, in broth, corned, brine

  4. First and foremost, what we recommend is focusing on foods that are unpacked with just 1 natural ingredient- themselves! 

Use these tips on your next grocery shopping trip to bring home the most nutritious ingredients for your family to grow on! 

Dahlia Marin and Bassem Youssef

Meet our Guest Writer…


This post was contributed by Dahlia Marin, Functional Plant-Based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Co-Founder of Married to Health. Dahlia overcame pre-diabetes, PCOS, and Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism with a plant-based diet and went on to have a healthy plant-based pregnancy, raise a 100% plant-based, healthy, happy 4-year-old. Dahlia now shares her knowledge through Married to Health: advocating plant-based food as medicine and empowering people to find true health and healing.