How many times have you picked up a package at the grocery store just to be bombarded with a dozen buzzwords that you don’t really know what they mean? It is often that we’re warned, read the labels. However, unless you truly know what everything means Google has to become your new best friend.

When it comes to ingredient lists there are many words that are masked as something simple. So we’re going to dive right into that, breaking down 15 common buzzwords and ingredient names and learn together what they truly mean.  By your next shopping trip, you can feel more confident in what you are actually buying.

1. Glycerides

By definition, glycerides are a fatty acid ester of glycerol but really it’s just a fancy word for fat. Other ingredient names that disguise the word fat along with glycerol are; esters, shortening, butter, palm oil, dripping, lard, hydrogenated oils, monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides and several others.

Fats are often added into prepared foods to serve as a solvent or sweetener and sometimes to help preserve the foods. It is also often used as a filler in low-fat foods and in liqueurs, it is used as a thickening agent. If you’re trying to watch your fat consumption make sure to look for these sneaky words in the ingredient lists. And remember, foods are listed in order of predominance.

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2. Saturated Fat

The body needs fat to maintain a healthy diet but determining what kind and how much can be tricky. In short, saturated fat is commonly known as the bad kind of fat. Saturated fats are commonly found in full-fat milk, cream butter, cheese and many meat products.

Several ingredient names to look out for that can qualify as saturated fat are; butter, cocoa butter, palm oil, powdered whole milk solids, lard, suet and coconut oil. Diets that are high in saturated fat could lead to high cholesterol which could eventually lead to an unsettling side effect, coronary heart disease.  It may be unrealistic to cut all saturated fats out of your diet especially considering you can find it in many desserts and favorite foods like pizza but it’s important to be mindful and always have it in moderation.

3. Trans Fat

Like saturated fat, trans fat could be considered another bad form of fat. Many packaged foods will contain trans fat because it can actually help prolong the shelf life. This is part of the reason why it’s so appealing to many manufacturers. Too much trans fat in the diet could also raise bad cholesterol levels so the importance of moderation plays a big role here too.

Trans fat is often made from vegetable oils that go through a process called hydrogenation, hence the term hydrogenated oils/fats. This turns healthy oils into solids to help prevent them from becoming rancid. You may not see trans fat directly in an ingredient label but it is quite often labelled as hydrogenated-oil. This is commonly found in cookies, margarine, cakes and many other packaged foods.

4. Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG) is essentially a form of sodium that can be naturally present in some foods and can be added to others. When added to foods it is used as a flavor enhancer. It can intensify salty and savory flavors while masking bitterness or sourness. MSG is attractive to manufacturers because it is an affordable way to enhance an array of savory flavors.

Traditionally it was obtained from seaweed but it is now commonly made from a bean and cereal protein. When you’re trying to cut back on your sodium consumption it’s important to know that there many other ingredients that are essentially salt too. When looking at your food labels you’ll want to look out for disodium phosphate, sodium bisulfate, brine, soy sauce, sodium alginate and sodium benzoate.

5. Fructose

If you’re trying to avoid sugar or lower your sugar consumption there are several names to look out for when searching your food labels. A common name for sugar that you’ll find in an ingredient label is fructose. It is a hexose sugar that is commonly found in honey and in fruit.

Sugar has next to no nutritional value and a diet high in sugar could set you on the road to many health risks. Some of these include diabetes, heart disease, obesity, increased risk of cancer and several more. Sugar is also highly caloric so while one cup of soda seems innocent it could actually take up a big chunk of your daily calories. If watching your sugar is a concern for you, you’ll want to watch out for its other names such as sucrose, maltose, lactose, honey, syrups, galactose and dextrose dextrin. It’s safe to assume that any word that ends with “ose” on a food label is some form of sugar.

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6. Soy Lecithin

You may have seen soy lecithin make an appearance on your ingredients label from time to time. Have you ever stopped to think about what it actually is and what purpose it serves? Soy lecithin is an extraction from raw soybeans that is now in many food products.

It is typically used as an emulsifier or lubricant to help improve the appearance of food products. Emulsifiers are also used as binding agents in some foods. Other types of emulsifiers that you’ll commonly see on the food label are xanthan gum and egg yolk. Its name isn’t as intimidating as it seems afterall.

7. Ascorbic Acid

Many foods will list vitamins and minerals in their ingredient list and we might not even know it. A commonly found name in ingredient labels is ascorbic acid. It is essentially a compound that has the same vitamin activity as vitamin C. Vitamin C can be known as the generic term whereas ascorbic acid is the proper chemical name.

Other common vitamin and minerals are pantothenic-acid and alpha-tocopherol. Pantothenic acid is a vitamin that is part of the B complex which is frequently found in bran, rice and other foods. It is important for us to have it because it encourages the oxidation of fats and carbs. Alpha-tocopherol is a form of vitamin E which acts as an antioxidant in our body. It’s easy to fear big or complicated names when it comes to ingredients list but some can merely be harmless.

8. Omega-3

We are often told we need omega 3’s for a healthy diet and some food packages will use “with omega 3” marketing term on their packaging. However, unless we fully understand what it is, what it means and why we need it, it might just sound like health food jargon.

The health food industry will regularly inform us to watch our fat intake especially the saturated and trans fat kind. If there was ever a type of fat you don’t want to cut back on it would be omega 3. Omega-3 fatty acids are known as good fat which helps our cells function properly and have been known to help prevent heart disease. They have the potential ability to regulate blood clotting, regulate our heartbeat, reduce blood pressure and several others. So the next time you see omega-3 you’ll want to think of it as a positive!

9. Organic vs. Natural

We can easily get bombarded with health food buzzwords and when some of them seem to have similar meaning it can make things utterly confusing. Unfortunately “natural” and “organic” are not even remotely similar when it comes to food labels. The term “natural” is generally used as a marketing term to claim that it contains natural ingredients with no other added ingredients. Foods that are labelled natural should not contain any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and should be minimally processed. The USDA requires products to clearly label explaining their term of natural.

When a food is labelled “organic”, it has a lot of certification to back it up. A lot of effort goes into protecting that label and ensuring that manufacturers and farmers are producing food that we as consumers can trust. Organic, in the US, guarantees no toxic synthetic pesticides and herbicides were used during production. To find out which foods are worth buying organic, read HERE.

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10. Low/Light

How many times have you picked up a package to see “low sugar” or “light-fat” or the like? When you’re walking the aisles at the store it can be hard to decipher what everything means. When you see a food with a low label what it actually means depends on what is being measured. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has specific restrictions for a food to be qualified and labelled as “low in”. For example, for a food to be labelled as low calorie, it has to have at least 40 fewer calories (for a snack) and 120 fewer calories (for an entree) than it’s original version. You can read HERE To find out the other restrictions on all categories such as fat, sugar, sodium etc according to the FDA.

Furthermore, some manufacturers will use the terminology “light” instead of low. While this makes things confusing the FDA still has regulations when the term is used. For example for a product to be labelled light in the mention of sodium, they require that it has to be at least 50% reduced than the original.

11. GMO/Non-GMO

If you don’t know yet, GMO stands for genetically modified organisms. This process means that the genetic characteristics that make up an organism are being artificially modified in order to achieve a new property. Many producers and manufacturers will use GMO’s as a way to enhance or protect their food.

So if GMO’s can enhance and protect our food why would we want non-GMO products? There has been raised concerns for health and environmental risk from GMO foods that have the public questioning its efforts. Unfortunately, when genetic engineers insert genes into the DNA of food it becomes displaced at random. They don’t have any control of where the genes go. In result, this could disrupt the function of other genes which in turn could create allergens and toxins in food. If you want to ensure your food doesn’t contain any GMO’s you’ll want to look for the NON-GMO Project Verified seal. This trusted label ensures authenticity because of its third-party certifications.

12. Reduced/Free

To make matters more complex, along with low and light you’ll also often see buzzwords such as reduced and free. They all sound like words that have similar meaning and in a food context, it can be hard to understand how they all differ. When you see the term reduced on a food label, often shown as “reduced fat” this indicates that the product has at least 25 % less fat than the original kind.

Furthermore, if you see the word free, commonly shown as “fat-free” indicates that the product has to have less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. The qualifications for other ingredients such as sugar-free, sodium-free and so on may differ slightly according to the FDA. To read more about the FDA regulations and requirements for food labels read HERE.

13. Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed

Recently the animal product industry has been put into the spotlight. Many of us are becoming more aware and conscious of what we put into our bodies and for some of us, that starts with our meat and dairy products. The way animals are fed, more specifically cows can have a large effect on the nutrient composition. Today, many cows are fed grains but throughout history, cows used to roam free and would eat grass.

According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) requirements for a meat product to be labelled with “grass-fed” must ensure they are fed only 100% grass after weaning from its Mother’s milk. They also may not be fed any grain or grain by-products at any time and have ongoing access to pasture during the growing season up until slaughter. It might not be worth the dollars invested into dairy products labelled as “grass-fed” because at this time the FDA does not have a definition nor a set standard for “grass-fed” dairy products.  If you feel more comfortable eating food that eats real food then purchasing grass-fed products would be a good choice. “Grain-fed” cows may cause rapid weight gain but at what cost? The nutritional value can be impacted as well as the animal’s overall health. After all, consuming grass and herbs does sound a lot better than a diet solely based on corn and soy.

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14. From Concentrate vs. Not From Concentrate

If you’re trying to avoid sugary drinks but don’t want to pay the price for freshly squeezed juice it too can be confusing when trying to understand the food labels. When a juice is labelled “From Concentrate” this means it goes through a process that removes all excess water from the juice creating a product that is seven times more concentrated than the original juice. It is then pasteurized and filtered and all of this is done because it’s a more efficient way to package and transport the product. This is commonly shown in frozen juices and then we, the consumer add the water back in before enjoying the drink.

If that whole process doesn’t appeal to you might feel encouraged to lean toward juices that are “Not From Concentrate”. However, it’s important to know that “Not From Concentrate” juices are just as heavily processed. To package these juices the oxygen has to be removed which in turn removes all the flavor. So for it to become a palatable drink it has to have a flavor pack added from companies who produce flavor and fragrance enhancers before it is packaged and shipped. This ensures the juices that come from one company all taste the same regardless of where the oranges come from or regardless of which types are used. Considering freshly squeezed juice only last for several days, it is safe to assume any beverage that has an expiry day of around 60 days is heavily processed.

15. Free-Range

Along with other popular food labels, “Free-Range” has been making a frequent appearance. Many chickens are confined to indoor housing systems which prevent them from moving around extensively and have exposure to sunlight. For this reason, many are seeking the Free-range label as a more ethical choice.

If you pick up a package of eggs and it is labelled as Free-Range certified then this implies that the chickens can roam freely outdoors. However, according to the official USDA website, there are no actual regulations for the size or conditions of the outdoor space. There also aren’t any regulations for how long each bird is given access to the outdoors. If the facts concern you, it’s important to be mindful there are always other options such as purchasing from a local family farmer and never be afraid to ask questions.

Clarissa Vanner

Clarissa loves experimenting with food of all cultures to make unique healthy dishes. When she’s not browsing Pinterest for new recipe inspiration she likes to pick up a DIY project and use her creative hands to make art or crafts. In her down time you can find her watching the latest documentaries on Netflix or going for nature walks.

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