What is a Processed Food, Really?
Almost all food is processed to some degree; the differences between processed food products lie within the ingredient list. If you have ever seen the back of most food packaging labels, you have probably seen that it has both “Nutrition Facts” and “Ingredients” sections. Many consumers may say they feel overwhelmed by all the words they see and that is completely understandable! Ingredient lists reside near the bottom of a food label. Many of the words are understandable, but some may be completely unrecognizable.
In this blog, you will learn the relationship of the nutrition facts section to the ingredients section. Additionally, we’ll compare some food products based on their ingredient list as some examples and you will learn some tips for reading food labels and the significance of some specific ingredients used often in products.
Important Ingredients to Look for
As mentioned, there are key components to pay attention to on a nutrition facts label.
Added sugars were added to the nutrition facts label so that people could make informed choices based on their needs. What is not told, is that “Added Sugars” is not synonymous with the ingredients list. There are many terms for sugar, such as:
- High fructose corn syrup
- Brown rice syrup
- Corn syrup (50% sugar, 50% oligosaccharides)
- Terms ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)
- Fruit concentrate, which fruit without the pulp or skin. This removes the fiber and vitamins, leaving only sugar in the form of fructose. (1) (2)
Like sugar, there are a number of names and types for artificial sweeteners that are added to products to add sweetness while providing no added sugar. Some examples of artificial sweeteners are: saccharin, aspartame, and sucralose. (3) Numerous studies have mentioned that artificially sweetened foods and beverages can be a great alternative to limit sugar intake and mention some benefits, but also some drawbacks:
- Confuse the brain because body is not receiving calories for perceived sweetness
- Make you eat more to feel full/increase hunger
- May disrupt balance of gut bacteria
- Easy alternative to decreasing sugar consumption, can help with weight control
- Can help with reducing added sugar intake
There is some research that links artificial sweeteners to issues with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and increased cravings. While artificial sweeteners are generally considered safe, much of the insight mentioned requires more research on the effects of artificial sweeteners. (3)
Guar Gum and Xanthan Gum
Guar gum contains high amounts of fiber and to reduce levels of blood pressure. The fiber thickens and binds foods. Excess consumption may cause some symptoms like gas, bloating, or cramps. (4)
Xanthan gum is another common additive meant to thicken or stabilize food. There is some research that ties xanthan gum to reduced levels of blood sugar and cholesterol. It is possible someone may experience digestive issues like gas and bloating when consumed in excess. (5)
Other Ingredients to Note
Nitrites/Nitrates: Good for preservation in processed meats to prevent bacterial growth. They are linked to higher risk of cancers with high intake. (6) It is recommended to look for nitrate- or preservative-free foods.
Enriched Wheat: This term is usually a “buzzword” to make the ingredient seem better than it is. When wheat is “enriched,” it is processed to remove the bran and endosperm. This process causes the wheat item to lose much of its nutrient value. Look for 100% whole wheat varieties instead.
Lecithin: Comes in powder or liquid forms from soybeans or dehydrated sunflowers. Lecithin provides a texture to help foods mix, such as incorporating a powder into liquid. Its research boasts a host of benefits, like reduced cholesterol. (7)
Natural Flavors: Natural flavors must originate from a plant or animal material and are used to enhance flavor. Natural flavors are still highly processed, can be sourced from genetically modified crops, and contain chemical additives, like preservatives and solvents. (8) The word “natural” contains many different meanings, although it is often understood as healthy.
How can you Determine the Quality of a Food Item?
Now that we know more about some ingredient terms, here are some things to remember when reading the label:
- All foods must list their ingredients in order of predominance
- First three to five ingredients are the most prominent.
- Don’t hang on any specific term to look out for (i.e sugar has a large list of names that all mean about the same thing)
- Compare the ingredients to the nutrition facts.
Now that we know this, let us check out some products to compare!
The protein bars mentioned are in “blueberry flavor,” except the MET-RX bar because they only had a fruit flavor in apple; this allows for consistency.
If we look at the ingredient list, the first mentioned are dates – a fruit sugar and fiber. Following dates are egg whites, almonds, and blueberries. Natural flavors come last, indicating minimal amounts compared to all of the other ingredients in the protein bar.
Clif Bar highlights using whole ingredients for its products. Important points include:
- No artificial sweeteners.
- In the list of ingredients, almost every other ingredient is a form of sugar; note that while “organic,” organic sugar is still sugar.
- Other ingredients listed near the top are organic rolled oats, an organic protein isolate (which is composed of 90% or more protein), and organic almonds.
All these ingredients offer a good amount of nutrients. Clif Bar does have a slightly higher amount of sugar in it, but can provide great fuel for the body to tackle going for a jog, working out, and to gain weight.
Similar to the ingredient lists on the Clif and MET-RX Bar, LUNA Bars have a longer list. However, most words are not difficult to understand.
- Compared to sodium in the RXBar (140 mg), Clif Bar (180 mg) and the MET-RX Bar (390 mg), the LUNA Bar (95 mg) has a low amount. 95 mg of sodium accounts for a small percentage of your daily averages.
- The LUNA Bar puts its protein blend at the beginning, meaning the protein blend is the most predominant ingredient.
- There is moderate amounts of carbohydrates, which primarily come from four sources of sugar. None of these sources are artificial.
I would recommend this bar before going to the gym or on a run, like Clif Bar. LUNA bar could do okay as a midday snack because of its lower amount of sugars and high fat and protein.
Deemed as the “meal-replacement bar,” MET-RX has a claim to fame for its high amount of protein. The sodium count on this bar is high too. This bar’s list is fairly daunting to look at, but the main thing to notice is the first half of the ingredient list makes up three ingredients. Let’s break it down:
- “Soy crisps,” consist mostly of soy protein isolate.
- “Apple layer,” many sugar sources.
- “Yogurt flavored coating” contains mainly cultured whey protein concentrate.
- Corn syrup
- METAMYOSIN, a protein blend.
- Maltitol syrup – a sugar alcohol (denoted by the -ol suffix). Maltitol syrup is a sweetener that contains some carbohydrates.
This bar contains a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and a fairly high amount of saturated fat. This bar provides what it states, but there are many extra additives.
Concentrates are primarily about 70–80% protein and contain some lactose (milk sugar) and fat.
Isolate contains 90% protein, or higher, with less lactose and fat
TGS Whey Protein
This is a blend of only whey protein concentrate and sunflower lecithin, an emulsifier that helps the whey mix together. This blend was made with intent for absolutely no additives and is unflavored. This example shows that many of the extra ingredients in the following powders enhance flavoring.
GHOST Whey Protein Powder
This ingredient list is shorter than some of the other companies.
- The whey protein mix is composed of whey protein isolate, concentrate, and hydrolysate.
- Although the formula isn’t entirely natural, they have lowered – not eliminated – the amount of troublesome ingredients used in many other whey powders, such as:
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- The most notable additive is sucralose, an artificial sweetener.
The good thing is there are a total of 4g of sugars in this blend and 2g of added sugar, making it a fair recommendation based on its composition.
PROJym Protein Powder
- The first ingredient listed is a mix of protein: this is a protein blend made from micellar casein, milk protein isolate, whey protein isolate, and egg white
- Next is a creamer containing coconut oil, maltodextrin, food starch and a mixture of fat emulsifiers with a salt component.
- Coconut oil does provide some good fats, but mostly contains saturated fats.
- Maltodextrin contains some sugar, but it’s only present in small amounts in food. Maltodextrin is a mixture of starchy vegetables – like corn or potatoes
- ProJym Protein powder contains natural and artificial flavors.
This powder is quite healthy all together. It has a reduced amount of additives with a high quality protein blend.
Annie’s Cowgirl Ranch
Annie’s has all organic ingredients, which start with water, expeller-pressed canola oil, apple cider vinegar, buttermilk, and cane sugar.
- We extract canola oil using pressure, which is better than methods using heat that may alter the oil. Canola oil reduces LDL cholesterol, but does contain a high amount of omega-6 fatty acids.
- Apple cider vinegar fights against free radicals and cell damage and contains polyphenols, which may reduce inflammation. This component isn’t high in a dressing blend, but it is acidic; consuming too much may damage teeth or upset your stomach.
- This dressing contains a little carbohydrate, 1 gram of saturated fat, and a high amount of sodium (240mg).
Hidden Valley Ranch
- The first ingredient is vegetable oil (from soybean and/or canola), which is seen as generally healthy by the FDA.
- Soybean oil has omega-6 fatty acids. When consumed too often, it may lead to chronic inflammation.
- These types of oils are fragile and susceptible to degrading to chemicals that are harmful to the body.
- After vegetable oil is water, sugar and salt.
Hidden Valley doesn’t contain too many carbohydrates (2g), but it does have a higher amount of sodium (260mg).
Like Hidden Valley, Whole30 starts with an oil, but this time they used high oleic sunflower oil.
- This oil is healthier than soybean or canola oil because high oleic oils contain monounsaturated fats, which help reduce LDL cholesterol.
- Following the high-oleic sunflower oil is water, egg yolks, and distilled vinegar.
Whole30 contains zero carbohydrates and a little less sodium (210 mg) than Hidden Valley
Whole foods that aren’t packed with lots of additives are generally the best way to go. If you do decide to buy processed foods, it’s good to know some common ingredients to look out for. Some ingredients may not be present in significant enough quantities to affect dietary quality. Lastly, make sure to compare ingredients back to the nutrition facts. Multiple forms of sugar, for example, can be listed numerous times, but the overall amount of sugar and added sugar on the nutrition facts label may not be significantly high. Don’t be scared of processed foods, but do be cautious. Good luck shopping!
Need more help with understanding food labels? Check out our other blog post regarding updated to the nutrition facts label!
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