Ingredient Label Cheat Sheet

I’ve long said you don’t need a specific “list” of ingredients to avoid when shopping for packaged food – instead just avoid the ones you wouldn’t normally cook with at home. BUT I also realize how tricky food packaging is, especially with how they might say one thing, but really mean another. For example, you’ll almost never see “white flour” spelled out on an ingredient label, and how many people really know that “partially hydrogenated oil” equals trans fat? They like to keep us on our toes!

So, since label reading (unfortunately) isn’t always as straight forward as it should be, today I’m sharing a little cheat sheet that tells you what some of the more commonly found ingredients really are. Please know this is not a complete list of the thousands of additives out there – otherwise we’d be here all day long. :)

Ingredient label cheat sheet on 100 Days of #RealFood

Common Grains

Ingredient Name What It Really Means
Unbleached Enriched Flour (Refined) White Flour
Enriched Flour (Refined) White Flour
Wheat Flour (without the word whole) (Refined) White Flour
Semolina / Semolina Wheat (Refined) White Flour
Wheat Shell Pasta (Refined) White Flour Pasta
Enriched Macaroni Product (Refined) White Flour Pasta
Whole Wheat / Whole Wheat Flour Whole Grain Flour (made from wheat)
Whole Grain Wheat /Whole Grain Wheat Flour Whole Grain Flour (made from wheat)
Whole Durum Wheat / Whole Durum Wheat Flour Whole Grain Flour (made from wheat)
Whole Wheat Shell Pasta Whole Grain Pasta (made from wheat)
Whole Grain Soft White Wheat Whole Grain Flour (made from wheat)
Rice Refined White Rice
Brown Rice Whole Grain Rice
Oats Whole Grain Oats (whether rolled, steel-cut, quick cooking, etc.)
Oat Bran Not the whole grain – just the bran
Whole Grain Corn Whole Grain Corn
Whole Grain Cornmeal / Whole Grain Corn Flour Whole Grain Corn Meal/Flour
Popcorn Whole Grain Corn
Cornmeal / Enriched Cornmeal Refined Corn
Corn Flour Refined Corn
Degerminated Corn Refined Corn
Corn Starch Refined Corn
Quinoa Whole Grain (usually only sold whole)

Common Sugars*

Be on the lookout for just about any term with the word “syrup” or “cane” or ending in the letters “-ose” – those are all pretty much refined (white) sugars that are best consumed only in great moderation (i.e. not every meal or even every day)!

Ingredient Name What It Really Means
Brown Rice Syrup Refined sugar
Cane Juice / Evaporated Cane Juice Refined sugar
Raw Sugar Refined sugar
Corn Syrup / Corn Syrup Solids Refined sugar
High Fructose Corn Syrup Refined sugar
Cane Sugar Refined sugar
Invert Sugar Refined sugar
Rice Bran Syrup Refined sugar
Tapioca Syrup Refined sugar
Dried Cane Syrup Refined sugar
Dextrose / Fructose / Sucrose Refined sugar
Agave Nectar Refined sugar (in most cases)
Stevia It depends, the leaf itself is obviously natural, but the refined powdery stuff – not so much
Grape Juice Concentrate / Pear Juice Concentrate Depends on how refined it is – this one is a gray area, but no matter what it’s still a “sugar”
Honey This is still “sugar” albeit a less refined version with trace nutrients
Pure Maple Syrup This is still “sugar” albeit a less refined version with trace nutrients

*The important thing here is that MANY products will use 2 or 3 or even 4 different types of sugar so just because you see “cane juice” listed as the 4th item used on the ingredient list – don’t stop there. Keep reading because chances are the product also contains brown rice syrup, honey and possibly some others. If you added all the sweeteners together it could end up as one of the top 3 ingredients (what the product contains the most of). Breaking up the sweeteners like that is no accident.

Artificial Ingredients

Ingredient Name What It Really Means
Aspartame Artificial Sweetener
Sucralose Artificial Sweetener
Saccharin Artificial Sweetener
Acesulfame K / Acesulfame Potassium Artificial Sweetener
Neotame Artificial Sweetener
Blue 1 Artificial Color
Blue 2 Artificial Color
Green 3 Artificial Color
Red 3 Artificial Color
Red 40 Artificial Color
Yellow 5 Artificial Color
Yellow 6 Artificial Color
FD&C Lakes Artificial Color
Citrus Red 2 Artificial Color
Artificial Color Artificial Color
Artificial Flavor Who knows what this really is – just avoid it!

Others Worth Mentioning

Ingredient Name What It Really Means
Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil Trans fat (that’s likely GMO)
Partially Hydrogenated [Insert Type] Oil Trans fat
 

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Are there any other confusing additives you’d like to add to this list? Please share below!

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67 thoughts on “Ingredient Label Cheat Sheet”

  1. I have been giving paleo a go due to health reasons and decided it’s not for me. Now I am moving towards the whole foods ideal. I now have a cupboard full of expensive alternatives. What about coconut flour, and coconut sugar? And tapioca flour? Thanks

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. Those are not ingredients that Lisa has used in her recipes but I’m a big fan of both coconut flour and coconut sugar but use the sugar, in general, sparingly.

  2. I have a question about flour. We have a gluten allergy and a tree nut allergy in our home. So I was looking for suggestions for the best kind of flour that meets criteria and can be used in most recipes that is both gluten free and tree nut free ( so almond flour is out). Thanks for any advice.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. With gluten free flours, you might have to stretch the rules a bit. I use Bob’s Red Mill whole grain gluten free blend. It works well in most recipes.

    1. “Natural flavors” are flavors that occur in nature but that doesn’t mean they came from nature. If a chemical is synthesized in a lab that identically matches the chemical as it occurs anywhere in nature it’s a “natural flavor” For example: it’s cheaper to manufacture the oil that gives lemons (and other citrus fruits) it’s flavor than it is to extract it from lemons so most likely the “natural flavors” in Sprite are manufactured in a lab.

      Companies don’t have to specify to protect brand proprietary information.

      How do I know? –a pharmaceutical chemist with an MS in chemistry and a passion for honest food labeling

  3. I am very eager to read the list, but there is an ad on top of the sugar section that I cannot make go away (mobile version) . I (begrudgingly) clicked on it in hopes it would then disappear but no luck. Any way to place ads such that they don’t block content? Thanks!

  4. Barbara Curtin

    What about Soy? Should soy on an ingredient list be avoided, or just avoided in general?

    Thanks,
    Barbara

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Barbara. Organic whole soy is okay but soy as an ingredient in processed food is one we try to avoid.

  5. I am wondering if you would be willing to put this list in a PDF form? I teach 8th grade nutrition and would love to put this in my class workbook for the next school year. Your site is amazing I use it all the time in my classroom. Thanks for all you and your team do.

      1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

        It is really difficult to pick apart every single additive which is why we just choose to avoid most of them. :) That said, there is a big difference between naturally occurring citric acid and the citric acid that is used as an additive in most processed foods. That citric acid is processed from a corn mold. It’s a hard additive to avoid. Here is one perspective on citric acid: http://www.nutritionalanarchy.com/2014/04/14/citric-acid-comes/.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Brooke. Sunflower oil is not an oil Lisa typically chooses. It is also one that I avoid because its fatty acid profile is out of balance (Omega 6s vs. Omega 3’s).

  6. Hi Lisa, I love this list. What would be even more helpful to me especially with the “Common Grains” list would be for you to highlight the ones you feel are OK to buy. I have watched your video on reading labels and thought it was helpful too.

    That way I can take that list to the store with me.
    Meri-Beth

  7. Thanks for this list and all you do to promote healthy food choices! It’s such a complex and confusing topic, I appreciate the fact that you are addressing the topic.

  8. what about the commonly found “natural flavours” label on packaged foods. What exactly is so natural about something they won’t specifically reveal to us?

  9. I do find this list helpful, however there are some glaring errors in your sugar list. I accept that your Real Food diet is focussed on using honey/maple syrup as sugar substitutes, but there are others available that are just as acceptable (if not better) in a whole food diet.

    Cane Juice/Evaporated Cane Juice (also sold as Panela, Sucanet or Rapadura) is not a refined sugar. It is just the pressed juice from sugar cane that has had the water evaporated off at low heat. It still retains vitamins, minerals & nutrients from the sugar cane, and also has a significantly lower level of sucrose than refined white sugar.

    Rice Bran Syrup/ Brown Rice syrup is also not refined. It is formed by the enzymatic breakdown of whole grain brown rice and, aside from evaporating water, no further refining occurs. The sugar in this sweetener is maltose, not glucose (and therefore it contains no sucrose/fructose) and is one of the more body compatible sugar substitutes available.

    1. Yes…I agree. “Brown rice syrup/barley malt is 50% maltose….least concentrated, least sweet, and most nearly whole-food sweetener.” -Paul Pitchford (Healing with Whole Foods)
      Of course, everything in moderation. :)

  10. What about Trader Joe’s whole wheat couscous which lists : whole durum wheat semolina as the only ingredient?

  11. Yeah I feel like this is all too basic. There are a lot more trickier ingredients that I’d rather know about. Such as Mindy asked about guar gum and xantham gum. I’d also be interested to know what you think about glucomonnan and other products made of konjac root. And what about xylitol or erythritol? Obviously these are processed in some way, and I’m ok with a certain amount of processing, but I’d like to know more about the real food view on these things, especially since a lot of healthier packaged foods contain these.

  12. Regarding Annie’s organic Mac and cheese, they were bought out by General Mills and is on the traitor list for organic food because General Mills spent money to to stop the right to know if GMO’s are in your food.

  13. I know you don’t shop for Brands based on their ethics or parent company choices, but I’m wondering if you’ve noticed Annie’s has changed the ingredients on their organic whole wheat version of mac & cheese? Is it still 100 days of real food approved?

  14. What is in ‘natural flavors’? I see that one all the time and think it could mean a thousand different things.

  15. Thank you for the ingredients cheat sheet, any chance this could be put into a small chart I can keep on a card in my purse?

  16. Isn’t it true that “natural flavor” isn’t necessarily all natural? This could mean a number of different things, right?

    Thanks!

  17. Your list of ‘refined’ sugars is inaccurate … by its very definition fructose is natural, and not a refined sugar. And raw sugar is also unrefined, because refined means stripping out the molasses. And -ose does NOT mean refined, it means sugar. Lactose doesn’t mean “refined milk”, it means “milk sugar”.

    I’m all for eliminating bad ingredients, but sharing bad information isn’t helping anyone make better choices in the foods they consume and the products they buy.

    1. I think the point is that it has to be extracted in order to be used as a sweeter altering the product from it’s original form. Lactose may be milk sugar but it’s part of a whole food, milk. When it’s removed from milk, it’s not ‘whole’ anymore. In my few, that means it’s not a natural product. As a home cook, I would not have the ability to take lactose out of milk (or fructose out of fruit, etc.) to cook with it. A chemical or some other process is required to do so. If you are following a whole food diet, as espoused by this website, I think that meets the definition of a refined product.

  18. oh dear! soo these are items we should avoid? still not clear, refined, whole, grain…i’m new and still trying to learn..,:)
    i have your cookbook, love it all!!!
    Thank you sheri :)

  19. How about carrageenan? and I’d also like to know what “natural flavour” really contains. Sulphites, nitrites and other chemicals. The list goes on……

    1. Natural flavor is anything, used mainly for flavoring purposes, that is derived from a natural plant or animal source. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Go ahead and google “castoreum” and see what you find. Yuck! It’s usually used for vanilla flavor.

  20. What about carmine? I saw this in my strawberry yogurt ingredients. It’s crushed up red beetle shells for color, and it’s FDA approved!!!! I can’t even!!

  21. How about the preservatives, or ingredients listed that then say “added for freshness”. Since you list the artificial colors, it would be helpful to list the natural colors.

    1. Frankly, I’d avoid anything with Palm oil that you aren’t positive isn’t sustainably sourced somewhere away from the rainforest areas of Indonesia/Malaysia. My parents just got back from there and the rainforest devastation is a tragic sight. For miles and miles the rainforests have been leveled and Palm has been planted. It is harvested in about 5 years then replanted thus making it “sustainable”… a manipulative and tactical use of words in this circumstance. It is, however, brilliant marketing directed at those who aren’t diligent in digging for information on their food sources, which makes up the majority of people.

      Unless you are absolutely sure of your exact source of the palm products you are supporting through your purchases, I’d avoid them. By buying them you are simply supporting further rainforest devastation, something that can never, ever be brought to life again.

    1. The Whole 30 has a similar list of the hard to pronounce words here: http://whole30.com/downloads/additives.pdf

      On that program, soy lecithin wouldn’t be allowed b/c they don’t do soy but, in my personal opinion, it’s probably alright based on the other information. They allow xanthan gum, too. Considering the Whole 30 allows for no soy (which also means no MSG, of course,) no sugar of any kind, etc, etc… I think it’s a pretty reliable list.

      I did it once and it was fine but I like the 100 days concept better. Not into avoiding legumes or anything that’s natural completely. Still, they have some good tools!

    2. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi there. It is fair to say that as a rule, we simply avoid additives on ingredient labels. Who needs that stuff? :) Obviously there are those that are of less concern than others but it is difficult to give a thumbs up or down to each and every one. Here is some additional info about both soy lecithin and xanthan gum but you will find conflicting info, as well: http://chriskresser.com/harmful-or-harmless-soy-lecithin/ and http://chriskresser.com/harmful-or-harmless-xanthan-gum/.

    1. That list would be FAR to long.! A few years back this blog had a link to a list of about 40(or more?) words that mean MSG, another 40 that are probably MSG and another 30 that are most likely MSG. I printed out a copy but it is in the basement and our power is out at the moment.

    2. If I recall correctly, I just learned that “yeast extract” is another name for MSG. Tricky buggers

  22. This is fantastic – any way to have a handy printable version??

    Also – I didn’t see caramel color on the list.

    1. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=501.22
      (3) The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants listed in subpart A of part 582 of this chapter, and the substances listed in 172.510 of this chapter.

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