Facts and Ingredients

As I cook more and read more about food and cooking, one statement that I come across a lot is the following:

I’m trying to eat less processed foods.

I’ve said it, I’ve read it, and I’ve heard people talk about it. But when it comes down to it almost all the foods we eat are processed to some degree (unless you pick your food from your garden). Even things that are one simple ingredient (rolled oats) are most certainly processed.

Clearly though oatmeal isn’t what people are talking about when they talk about processed foods. If you look at the nutritional data, you’ll know they are talking about Twinkies. But if you’re trying to eat less processed foods which I think most people would agree is a good thing, then how do you know what foods are more processed and which processes are actually bad for you?

The Process(es)

There’s a very long Wikipedia entry on processed foods and with good reason. It’s complicated stuff. In fact, I’d it’s so complicated that it’s very hard to make general rules that fit a healthy diet.

Michael Pollan, for example, says in his book In Defense of Food, that you should try to eat foods with under five ingredients listed in the nutritional data. I think that’s a good rule and will keep you generally out of trouble, but it’s pretty arbitrary when you look at it. It’s definitely possible to have a processed food with more ingredients than that and it could be healthy for you. More importantly, there are foods with less ingredients that are not at all considered healthy – soy sauce for example – delicious, but not great for you.

As an eater, I don’t want to restrict foods that might be healthy for me based on some number, but at the same time I want to be careful about the processes and ingredients that I do eat regularly.

I think the answer lies in that little boring box on the side or bottom of almost everything you can buy: The Nutritional Data and Facts. Unfortunately, I’d say that most people probably overlook this little box. After all, there’s no real obligation to make this box exciting or interesting or, heck, even easy to read. It just has to exist.

But if you know what to look for on this box, you can quickly identify whether or not the processed food you’re holding is actually okay to eat, regardless of number of ingredients.

So in this post I want to take an example nutritional data panel from a common product and see if I can figure out what’s really going on. I don’t want to actually say the product or brand just because it’s not really important and I don’t want people to focus on it (although bonus points if you can guess it). At the end of the day, I’ll try to answer just two questions:

1) Should I regularly eat it?

2) Could I make it better (or at all) in my kitchen?

The Nutritional Data

The first part of these nutritional facts is the breakdown of the nutrients in the food. Honestly, I think the most important part of this chart is right at the top: serving size. A lot of times food manufacturers will change this around so that the information below is more favorable.

For example, the next time you drink a bottle of soda, check out the serving size. I think a 20 ounce bottle of soda is something like 2.5 servings of soda. Who drinks 1/3 of a bottle of soda?

So make sure you check out the serving size compared to what you are actually eating.

As far as the rest of the information goes, I’d say the most important thing is to basically ignore the percentages. If you want to get serious about dieting, know how many grams of protein, sodium, carbs, and fat you should be getting everyday and then use those numbers.

The percentages on these charts always assume a set 2000 calorie diet and based on your age, health, and goals, your specific needs may be way different than what this chart assumes.

Sodium Overload

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure there’s a major typo in the charge on the right. I think they mean 160mg of sodium… not 160g. Ignoring the fact that 160g of sodium would send you straight to the hospital, the whole serving size listed is 42g. So that’s actually impossible, but I guess I won’t write a letter to the manufacturer.

In fact, if you get nit-picky, you’ll notice that the number of grams listed under the nutritional data don’t even all add up to the grams in the total serving size. If you add up all the grams listed, it’s over by about a gram. That’s because they can round when they make these charts so don’t freak out about it.

For me, I usually just glance at this table to get a general idea if my food is particularly high or low in any one category and also I note the serving size for the thing I’m eating.


The second part of this facts panel is the ingredients. Manufacturers are required to list all ingredients that are in the food, but I think there are some exceptions regarding flavorings and stuff, possibly for trade secret reasons.

The important thing to know about this section is that the manufacturer doesn’t have to tell you how much of any one ingredient they use, but they have to list them in order of amount.

Anyway, for me, this is the real bread and butter section. After all, I want to know what I’m eating. Let’s just break down the one from my product. I’m only going to do one of the varieties because they are all basically the same.

Whole Grain Oats: I know what those are! I eat them most mornings for breakfast! It’s a good sign that a whole grain product is listed very first.

Sugar: Well, sugar is a prominent ingredient which doesn’t really bother me that much, but it’s not the best thing in the world.

Canola Oil: I have nothing against canola oil. I use it all the time. But for this product I’m not really sure why it’s so high on the list.

Yellow Corn Flour: Actually an interesting ingredient. Doesn’t bother me at all.

Honey: I love honey. I’m a bit confused why they use honey and sugar. I guess maybe using all honey would be too expensive.

Soy Flour: I’ve never really seen soy flour, but apparently it gives moisture to baked products so it makes sense that it would be an ingredient here.

Brown Sugar Syrup: More sweet stuff. Hmm…

Salt: I’m cool with salt for sure.

Soy Lecithin: The first odd sounding ingredient in the list. I’m not sure what Lecithin is. It’s apparently used as an emulsifier so I guess it helps stuff mix together. It’s definitely far from food in my opinion.

Baking Soda: A common leavening ingredient.

Natural Flavor: Who knows what the hell this could be.

So that’s the run down. For me, it was actually really interesting to go through all the ingredients in this product. To answer my two questions… 1) Yes. I think I would eat this regularly. It’s not perfect, and it has a bit too many sweeteners, but it also has a lot of whole grain oats which is good. 2) I think I could definitely make a better version at home. In fact, I have.

So, do you know what my mystery product is?

More importantly, did you like this post? Should I do this kind of breakdown on other foods?

23 comments on “Facts and Ingredients

  1. I think guessing from the 3 varieties listed on the nutrition facts, it's a variety pack of granola bars?? Great stuff, as always Nick!

  2. Great post! I knew it was the NV granola bars from the serving size… I know 2 bars come in a packet, but it really is a generous portion compared to most commercially-made granola bars.

    Love the breakdown of nutrition facts! I try to do this on a somewhat regular basis, mostly at the grocery store and not at home, so I can't actually Google all the weird-sounding ingredients before I buy (no iPhone here), so when I'm trying to be healthy I usually get scared and stick to what I know. It doesn't make for a varied diet, for sure! So I'd love to see more posts like this, of course paired with recipes and tips for how to make homemade versions of the chemical stuff they sell in packages!

  3. There actually is an obligation to make the "Nutrition Facts" labeling easy to read. I've designed packaging with these mothers on them and the FDA spells out very clearly what they want to see. 8 point Helvetica for the type, 6 point for the small type, leading, rule thicknesses, etc. (http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceComplianceRegulatoryInformation/GuidanceDocuments/FoodLabelingNutrition/ucm173838.htm)

    It's why U.S. nutrition labels generally look uniform nowadays and are nice and legible. In fact, the new labeling system won a design award for that.

    Bah, sorry to be pedantic. I think I need some cocoa puffs or something. :p

    1. Thanks Amy. That's very helpful actually. I'm pretty sure I'm right about the Sodium typo though. That's kind of a big mistake for whoever is in charge of proofreading…

  4. Nice post! I'm a big fan of reading labels. Too many people see the brightly colored marketing on the box front and are suckered in. They throw the food in their carts and later, they throw it in their faces without thinking ONCE about what is in their "food". My mom's a perfect example – she works out, THINKS she's healthy and is skinny, but her diet consists of so much crappy processed food that her doctor is now trying to figure out why/how he has a 100 lb diabetic on his hands.

    Food has become so far removed from it's source that it's appalling the level of chemicals that we happily gobble up. Real, nutritious, fresh food has become something that takes too much time to prepare.

    Okay, my soapbox is rolling full speed ;) This is something I really care about.

  5. I have this book titled "Process-Induced Food Toxicants." I have it in a stack to read, including "Garlic And Other Alliums." At work, we get these crazy books to review, and the editor is just like "We ain't doin' these, frees for alls!" I have something on DNA fingerprinting for forensics, international environmental policy, and something about pesticides, too. I just haven't cracked any of 'em open.

    I'm one of those peeps who tries to eat fewer processed foods, too. I don't even buy canned chickpeas–dry all the way, baby! But, then, I eat out. At Chinese restaurants.

    Inconsistent, yes, but… Y'know… Well… Shoot me. At least I don't shop at grocery stores, usually (unless I need to get my dry chickpeas or somesuch at the organic grocery store).

  6. Actually…. if you go the the world's healthiest food site (whfoods dot com… I don't want to end up in your spam filter) and search for soy sauce, you'll see that it is actually a quite healthy food. It can be used in place of salt in cooking thus reducing the need for so much salt.

    And… salt is not much of a problem if people would just get a good balance in their diet of sodium and potassium… so we need to eat our fruits and veggies.

    If most people cooked at home like us food bloggers, they would probably get a pretty balanced diet. The problem comes in when people don't know how to control their portions and they don't know how much fat, sugar and salt are in the things they eat too much of.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for the info Mimi. I guess I just assumed that because soy sauce tends to accompany some unhealthy foods… Thanks for setting me straight :)

  7. There's been a lot of articles in the press recently about the negative health effects of salt consumption, so how come you have no problem with salt? Also, nice catch with the 160g. What product's label was that?

    1. I kind of subscribe to the ruhlman theory on salt which is that the main problem with salt intake is that it's hidden in a lot of things that it shouldn't be in… but I put salt in my granola bars also. Since they don't have amounts you just have to go by the amount of sodium which isn't crazy high or anything.

      Ruhlman's Article

      And yea… the first commenters were spot on. NV Granola bars.

  8. You know, it's funny you bring this up, I've been hearing all sorts of harassment from my hubby about my refusal to buy Ramen Noodles anymore. But, when you consider that ONE package is TWO servings, and that there's enough sodium for like 2 weeks in there–and my hubby generally eats TWO packages (four servings!!!) in one sitting, it just scares the crap outta me that he'll have a heart attack before his 30th birthday from eating crap like that. I wish we would force food companies to reduce the amount of sodium and make everything from natural ingredients–no preservatives, no emulsifiers, no shortcuts, just plain old food like I would cook in my own kitchen if I had the time. I mean, I'm not one who is fond of excessive regulation, but this is one thing that I think has been allowed to go too far. I don't mind paying more for a convenience food if it's actually, well, FOOD.

  9. I'm always glad to see this kind of posts, this is pretty much how I choose the food I eat too. It's pretty scary to read the label of some packaged meals and foods, too many words I don't know… if I can't pronouce it, I try not to eat it.

  10. Sodium — the big secret in "processed" foods and a personal target of mine for the past 2 years. Where we live, you even have to check the labels on "fresh" meat as much/most of the pork at our grocery stores is labelled "seasoned" (meaning brine soaked).

    You are correct in noting that the Serving Size is an important factor when reading a nutrition label. The other factor to note is the actual amounts — not the percentage of the DV. Case in point — sodium. The DV shown on nutrition labels is based on 2300 mg. So the DV manufacturers are using is actually the MAXIMUM amount most people should be eating — see the quote from the Health Canada website: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/nutrition/sodium/ind

    The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for sodium is set by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies (IOM). They recommend that people aged 14 and over not exceed 2300 mg of sodium per day, which is the highest intake level likely to pose no risk of adverse health effects. Adequate Intakes (AIs) for good health for people aged one year and over, range from 1000 mg/day to 1500 mg/day.

    FYI regarding grams & mg & sodium (again from Health Canada):

    1 teaspoonful contains about 6 grams of salt

    6 grams of salt contains about 2400 mg of sodium

    As an over 50 year-old, the personal amount I aim for each day is about 12-1400 mg. Nice soapbox!! Thanks.

  11. Sup bro. I actually have been known to take lecithin supplements. It's an alternative treatment for MS, but it's supposed to be good for you for lots of other reasons too.

    I do wonder about baking soda and powder though, if only on an academic level. I've been going through a pancake phase, and I'm downing a teaspoon of each a day. I wonder if… well, it just seems like a lot of baking powder.

  12. I really love this post! I was diagnosed with fructose malabsorption about 5 years ago so I have to read ingredients really closely. Its amazing what products contain high fructose corn syrup – I've found it in dill pickles and canned kidney beans! I am always amazed at the multiple different types of sweeteners products contain!

  13. CGCouture, food companies are actually working on lowering salt content while maintaining salty flavour (check this article out). They have discovered that certain other chemicals allow decreased sodium content while maintaining the same salty taste–for example, adding imperceptible amounts of menthol tricks your taste buds into thinking something is saltier than it actually is. Also, using smaller-sized particles of sodium make things taste saltier, so less particles can be used. It all depends, of course, upon the product in question (whether it's a chip or a dip or a powder, I guess), but things probably have a lot less sodium today than they used to. The problem lies mostly in people who eat only processed foods, and I think most of us agree that that is not something we do.

    Personally, I only add salt when I bake, really. Baking seems like magic to me most of the time, so I don't want the lack of half a teaspoon of salt to ruin the "spell"!

  14. I really liked this post. I used to be veg and my son has some food sensitivities so we're used to reading labels… but MANY people just don't do it! And, sometimes what you find is pretty frightening so I guess I can't blame folks (like, why do brown foods need food coloring?! They're BROWN!!! But, that's a whole other tirade!). It'd be cool to have even more info on each ingredient (ex: lecithin – it's kinda food… it occurs naturally in eggs… but in this particular instance you're probably right about it not REALLY being food. Why not find out more!)

    It's late and I don't have the mental stamina to read every comment… but I did notice you wondered about using sugar and honey b/c all honey would be too expensive. That may be but the sugar would help with the crustiness of the granola bars while the honey helped them be moist (altho I think those particular bars are far from moist!) and sugar and honey have very different flavors so it gives it some dimension! Mmmmm sweet…..

  15. Nick, this was a great post, but I'd like to see you break down the ingredients on a SUPER-processed 'food' that's full of artificial sweeteners, artificial flavorings, etc. (you know, a 'simple' food with a list of ingredients a mile long) Things like MSG have multiple names, too, so it'd be nice to know what ingredients are actually masquerading as something they're not.

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