Why It’s Absolutely Okay To See (Many) Ingredients You Can’t Pronounce on Food Packaging

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In an effort to eat a more nutrient-dense, well-balanced diet, getting into the habit of reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists is one of the best ways to ensure you’re picking packaged foods that are loaded with good-for-you ingredients. A simple rule of thumb you’ve likely heard is that ingredients you can’t pronounce or recognize are red flags signaling that the item in question isn’t great for you. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to registered dietitian Maxine Yeung, RD, CPT, NBC-HWC. “Just because an ingredient is unfamiliar and challenging to pronounce doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad for us,” she says.

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For instance, a hard-to-pronounce ingredient could simply be the technical term for a vitamin or mineral, otherwise known as the good stuff your body needs to operate optimally. “Food is essentially made up of chemical components, and most ingredients, even natural ones, have a scientific name, which often tends to be multisyllable and difficult to pronounce,” Yeung says.

“Take some of the essential amino acids, i.e. ‘the building blocks of protein,’ such as methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and isoleucine. These are hard to pronounce and may sound scary because they are unfamiliar,” Yeung adds, “but these nutrients are necessary for your body, and you must get them through the foods that you eat as your body does not produce them.” 

@elainaefird Just because words are hard to pronounce, doesn’t mean they are “bad” #foryou #learnontiktok #health #healthyliving #food ♬ original sound - Elaina Efird RD, CEDRD, CSSD

In particular, vitamins are hard to pronounce, according to Yeung. “A couple of examples are ergocalciferol (vitamin D2) and cyanocobalamin (B12), both really important for our bodies,” she says. “Docosahexaenoic acid is an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish that’s vital for the development of the brain and nervous system in infants and children.” 

Why “processed” isn’t a bad word

Part of the reason seeing words you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize can make people think twice before adding them to their shopping cart is because they assume that it indicates the food in question is overly processed. But Yeung points out that pretty much all food the food we eat is processed to some degree. Sometimes, pre-processing a food adds value—just think about how much more expensive a bag of pre-shredded Brussels sprouts is compared to a stalk of sprouts that requires you to do the washing, trimming, peeling, stemming, and shredding at home. Those shredded Brussels are technically processed, FYI.

The term 'processed' clearly carries a stigma; it leads our brains to automatically assume that many artificial ingredients, chemicals, and preservatives are involved. But it's important that this definition doesn't apply to many processed foods—and even when it does, that doesn't make a food 'bad.' “Basically any time we do anything with food, such as cook, bake, freeze, pre-cut, or pre-wash, it becomes 'processed.' Bagged spinach is technically processed, yet we think of this as a ‘healthy’ food,” Yeung says. “Frozen vegetables are technically processed.” Same goes for nut butters (which are ground up nuts), yogurt (made from fermented dairy and cultures), a sliced loaf of bread (you get the picture), and so on.

According to Yeung, even if the food in questions does include an unnatural ingredient, it’s likely there for a good reason. “If you’re concerned about additives, which often have long names, you may want to research them to see if you’re comfortable eating them. This is because they do serve a purpose, usually to help preserve a food,” Yeung says.

Of course, not all processed foods are going to be nutritious, or even considered good for you. One ingredient Yeung would strongly caution against is hydrogenated oil. “It is essentially trans fat, and is known to increase risk of heart disease,” she says. “The FDA technically banned trans fat in 2018, however, some foods still contain trans fat even if on the food label it says it does not or if they were produced prior to 2018. The easiest way to know if a product has trans fat is to look for the phrase ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ on the ingredients list.”

In general, Googling any ingredients you can’t easily identify is something Yeung suggests everyone start doing. “The best way to tell if a word that is unfamiliar to you is healthy or not is to look it up,” she says. “You’ll likely be able to quickly see if it’s a nutrient that you want to consume. Over time, you’ll start to learn more of the scientific names for ingredients.”

TL; DR: At the end of the day, knowledge is power.

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