This is where you’ll get the real lowdown on what you’re eating. You can eat all the ‘diet’ food you want but if you can’t understand this information then you may be sabotaging yourself.

I remember having this conversation in 2009 with a holistic nutritionist. This was before the ‘whole food movement’ became popular. She was saying that if we just ate whole & natural foods we wouldn’t have cravings. Because whole foods contain natural levels of fat, protein, carbohydrates, water and micronutrients, our bodies would be satisfied and we wouldn’t get the physiological symptoms that signal that we are hungry.

My argument was that, as North Americans, we have learned to ignore those signals. We have also learned to ignore the signals that indicate that we are full. We continue to eat, based on taste, which means that we end up over-consuming calories and this leads to us storing these extra calories as fat.

That stopped her in her tracks. We both knew that what she was saying was true. But how do we stop people from over-eating, even the good food? If a food is low in calories, we eat more of it because ‘we can’. But if we know that a food is good for us, we eat more of it because ‘we should.’ When we try to lose weight, we cut out foods that we think are bad for us because we don’t have the will-power to just decrease the portion sizes. Cutting out entire food groups can actually lead to malnutrition because we lose important sources of vitamins and minerals.

In the first post of this series, Supporting Healthy Eating and Weight Loss Goals – The First 5 Things You Should Look At On Your Food Labels, we looked at the energy portion of the label. Then we looked at the nutritional value of The Next 5 Things You Should Understand on Your Food Labels. Now we go even deeper and take a look at what these two previous topics are based on – the ingredients.

Times have changed and people are caring about where their food is coming from, how it is grown or raised and how it is kept safe for human consumption. That awareness starts with the ingredients list on food labels.

So, let’s look at the ingredients in this breakfast cereal. If it is something as simple as a cereal, why are all these other things in there? What purpose do they serve? Here are some things you should know:

Ingredients list - Oatmeal Crisp cereal

  1. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Here, the first ingredients are whole grain oat and whole grain wheat. Those are good. You want to avoid ‘enriched’ grains so ‘whole’ is better than ‘enriched.’

The next ingredient is sugar and/or golden sugar. To have a sweetener as the third ingredient is not unusual in this type of food (unfortunately). However, if you continue on down the list, you’ll see that there are other sweeteners: sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, honey, golden syrup and stevia leaf extract. So, to have sugar as the third ingredients PLUS have all these other sources of added sugar is not that great.

  1. When you see ingredients in brackets, they are the constituents of the food immediately to the left of the brackets. For example: Honey clusters contain rolled oats, sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, oat flour, rice flour, honey, salt, calcium carbonate, cinnamon, baking soda, artificial flavour, monoglycerides and BHT. (Phew!)

The food within the brackets is also listed in descending order by relative weight, which means there are more rolled oats by weight than there is BHT. (Good to know)

  1. Most of the stuff that you can’t pronounce are food additives. Food additives are not necessarily bad for you. Citric acid is found naturally in citrus fruits and can be used as a buffer, emulsifier and flavouring agent. Let’s look at some of the additives found in this cereal:
  • Calcium carbonate: Used in the body as a buffer (acidity regulator), it may also be used as a stabilizer or colour. In moderate doses, such as found in processed food, it is not harmful.
  • BHT: You may have heard about this as a food supplement. Its uses in processed food are similar to the reasons for its use as a food supplement – BHT is a weak antioxidant and since oxidation is a major reason for food going bad, it is used as a preservative.
  • Gum acacia: This is actually a source of soluble fibre! For all that it sounds kind of nasty, it’s actually not a negative thing to have in this food.
  • Annatto: This is a natural food colourant BUT some people are allergic to it.
  1. Potential major allergens must be listed. Since August, 2012, a list of major allergens contained in the food has been added to the bottom of the label. On this label, we can see that it contains almond, wheat and oat ingredients. Notice that annatto is not included in this list. That is because the incidence of allergic reactions to annatto are so rare that it is not considered to be a major allergen.

So, what do you think of this breakfast cereal? Is it that bad? Well, it really depends upon how ‘whole food’ you want to eat. Yes, there are good reasons for most of the additives in the food, but do you really want to be constantly consuming those?

Also, and I think this is a big factor, there is the issue of all that added sugar. Remember that first label that I showed you? It said that, in one serving, there were 47 g of carbohydrate and 13 of those grams were added sugars. This means that only 34 g were naturally occurring. Approximately 25% of the carbohydrates came from added sugars. That’s a lot.

When you eat candy or other sweets you expect there to be sugar, right? So you aren’t surprised when you find out how much you consumed.

Do you feel the same level of guilt when you eat breakfast cereal? How about when you eat one that has ‘Oatmeal’ in the name?

The problem today is not in over-consumption of foods that we know are bad for us. It is in the over-consumption of foods that we are told are GOOD for us, or that we are led to believe are good for us. We need to be smarter consumers.

Remember that oatmeal that I described in the first label post? Here it is again.

Nutrition Facts panel for Steel Cut Oats

Check out the ingredients: Organic whole grain oats. Now, here are the ingredients for the other components that I added to the oatmeal:

1 tsp of brown sugar: cane sugar, molasses

2 tsp golden raisins: golden seedless raisins, sunflower oil

2 tsp coconut flakes: coconut, salt, sugar, coconut milk, coconut juice

Keep in mind that these are all things that form ingredients in pre-packaged food. They are also not fresh foods, i.e. they will not decompose if left on the shelf for prolonged periods of time. Yet, there are no preservatives or things that you can’t pronounce in the ingredients. You are fully aware of what is adding sweetness to the food; nothing is being hidden from you.

That is what food should look like. When you look back to the early part of the last century and beyond, this is what their food was made of. This is what our bodies were designed to process, in moderate amounts.

Learning about labels and what to look for and avoid is an integral part of wise consumerism. If you are going to eat processed foods, make sure you know what’s in it.

I’ll leave you with one last thought…

My darling husband, who is normally right on board with all of this, accidentally came home with the wrong peanut butter. Which one do you think it was?

Kraft peanut butter ingredients Kirkland peanut butter ingredients








Leah Esplen, MSc (Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology) enjoys moving and eating well but is aware of the challenges that people (including her) face to do so. Her mission is to take the b.s. out of nutrition and fitness information to make it more ‘palatable.’ She believes anyone can make changes to improve their health, as long as they know the right changes to make. When not teaching in the BPK department at SFU, Leah can usually be found presenting at fitness conferences, teaching fitness instructors or teaching MommyMoves® PreNatal and Mom & Baby fitness classes. Amazingly, Leah is not perfect. She wrestles with chronic injury and finding the right combination of nutrition and physical activity to maintain her own health.

Head shot

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!