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What’s in my food? A guide to the ingredients list

Bowl of sugar
Andrea Ho
Written by Andrea Ho

The ingredients list on a food label is required by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to be listed on most packaged Canadian food products that contain more than one ingredient. Understanding the ingredients list can help you look for specific ingredients that you want or don’t want because of allergy or intolerance, compare products, and make healthier food choices.

Ingredients are listed by order of weight

This means that the first ingredient weighs the most (i.e. there is more of it in the food product) and the last ingredient weighs the least (i.e. there is less of it in the product).

Choose products that have fewer ingredients

Products with longer ingredient lists are more processed, especially if many of the ingredients listed are preservatives or words that you don’t recognize. Look for products that list fewer ingredients, and ones you would normally cook with at home or eat on their own.

Identify the different names for unhealthy ingredients.

Sometimes reading the ingredients list is like reading a foreign language. Knowing how to identify different names for ingredients will help you make healthier food choices. Here are some common (and sometimes tricky) ingredients to avoid:

Trans fat

Trans fats raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) and decrease your good cholesterol (HDL). Sources of trans fat include hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils and shortening. Avoid products that have sources of trans fats listed anywhere on the ingredients list.


Sodium can increase your blood pressure. Look out for the words “sodium” or “salt” – even if they’re combined with other words, like in monosodium glutamate (MSG), disodium, garlic salt. Other sources of sodium are brine and soy sauce. Avoid products that list sodium within the first five ingredients.


Words that end in “ose” are all forms of sugar (glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, etc.). Other sources of added sugar include corn syrup, molasses and honey. Under new food labelling requirements starting soon, sugars-based ingredients will be grouped together in brackets after the name “sugars”, which will make it much easier for you to identify all of the sources of sugars added to food. Sugar can increase your risk of heart disease, so avoid products that have any added sugars listed within the first five ingredients.

Use the ingredients list as a partner to the Nutrition Facts Table

The ingredients list is typically listed close to the Nutrition Facts Table on the food product. This makes it easier to compare the ingredients list and nutritional content of different products. If you see two products with identical or very similar ingredients lists, make sure to compare the Nutrition Facts Table to help you make a healthier choice.

About the author

Andrea Ho

Andrea Ho

Andrea is a registered dietitian with the Schulich Heart Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

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