The Ingredient List: Know what’s in Your Food


As a whole-foods chef I strive to avoid packaged foods for the most part, but still buy a handful that are minimally processed, such as non-dairy milk, canned beans, and mustard. Even when buying minimally processed foods, however, I am continually reminded of how important it is to glance at the list of ingredients on the back of a package, even if it’s a brand or product you’re familiar with.

This point was driven home to me again last week as I stood in the grocery aisle in search of tomato paste. I found one I liked and had used before with just one ingredient: tomatoes. As I was putting it into my basket, I noticed a nearly identical can of tomato paste next to it, the difference being that it had the words “with Italian herbs” added to the front label. I was intrigued, so I turned the can around to read the ingredient list for which herbs in particular had been added.

And, here we go…

I couldn’t believe what I saw—as well as what I didn’t see! What I thought may be just tomato paste with the addition of some basil, oregano and/or thyme was in reality something very different. The ingredient list had jumped considerably in length, but the kicker was—there was no mention of herbs anywhere.

After reviewing the ingredient list a few times, I decided to email the manufacturer to ask where the herbs were, and within an hour I got an answer. Kind of. I received the following response: “We consider the exact spice and natural flavoring ingredients to be proprietary information—part of our special recipe.” Not the most satisfying answer.

This is yet another compelling reason to eat food as close to how nature made it as possible. You cannot ever know what’s really in your food when it is packaged or prepared by a business, whether a food manufacturer or a restaurant. This is not to say all packaged foods and all restaurants are to be avoided, but because their goal is money and our goal is health, we should always stay curious, do our homework, and ask questions, even when they make it so easy for us not to.

Aside from the mysterious herbs, this can’s long list of ingredients included many items that challenge the pursuit of good health, such as: high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrolyzed corn gluten, soy and wheat gluten proteins, Romano cheese, milk, and salt.


Why would the food manufacturer add all these unnecessary ingredients to tomato paste? To save money somehow? Or maybe it’s because manufacturers know that most consumers respond to getting more (“with Italian herbs”); that most consumers don’t read labels; and that the addictive nature of sugar (corn syrup), fat (oil, cheese), and salt in their products keep customers coming back for more.

I also was curious to see if the two tomato pastes looked and tasted differently. They sure did! The tomato-only paste tasted just as you would think, tangy and tomato-like. The “herbed” paste tasted objectionable and smelled like baby food. The “herbed” paste had green specks in it, I presume to assure buyers they were getting their “Italian herbs.” Although if they are really herbs at all is anyone’s guess.


Next time you’re buying your favorite packaged food, take a look at the ingredient list; you may be surprised at what you find. Possibly a long list of substances you would not otherwise put into your mouth on purpose. Manufacturers also change their ingredients periodically, so check the ingredient list now and then, even if you think you know what’s in the product.

This is another example of how anything, even the simple tomato, can be turned into a junk food. Any food with a label deserves our attention. Why? Because the body is always paying attention to what’s going into it, even if we’re not. Keep the following tips in mind next time you go shopping:

1. Read the ingredient list: Never buy a food based only on information provided on the front of the package; always turn it over and read the ingredient list.

2. Order is important: Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with those used most to those used least (by weight). If you’re trying to avoid salt, for example, make sure it’s toward the very end the list, or better yet, buy salt-free products.

3. The fewer ingredients, the better: Buy packaged foods with as few ingredients as possible. I rarely buy anything with more than five ingredients, and most of the time I strive for just one or two (i.e., tomatoes, black beans, frozen strawberries, soy milk made with just soy beans and water).

4. Know what you’re eating: If you don’t know what it is (i.e., hydrolyzed corn gluten) and/or do not find it occurring in nature (i.e., oil, high fructose corn syrup), it’s best to avoid the product.

Getting into the habit of reading ingredient lists before you buy packaged foods can benefit your health greatly, and it only takes a couple seconds. I encourage you to become the investigator of your own food, and discover what’s behind the curtain!


  1. Desiree says

    Great post! Wouldn’t it be great if the ingredients list was on the front of labels and the picture on the back? Maybe more people would care.

    I’ve received the same “proprietary information…special recipe” response when I contacted a company about their canned beans to see if pork was in their “natural flavoring.”

  2. Doris says

    Thank you for this article. I have been visiting your website for some months now and I really liked. Your recipes are very good, I have prepared some of them and they taste great. I hope more people start eating plant base. I start eating this way only six months ago and I’m loving every part of it. Again, thank you.

  3. marthaeoMartha says

    Have you read THE PLEASURE TRAP by Douglas J. Lisle & Alan Goldhamer? Or SALT SUGAR FAT by Michael Moss? It’s outrageous the way companies play with consumer’s taste buds! They have food chemists to think these ingredients up!!! :-( Thanks for this post.

  4. Theresa says

    Unfortunately, consumers have to navigate the world of double speak now if we want to buy any kind of processed food. I recall hearing the FDA expanded the criteria that defines “natural flavoring” to include basically anything. So, we have to realize that anything called a “natural flavoring” is absolutely not. Thanks for this informative post!

  5. Terry says

    Grape Nuts!!! – An example of checking labels now and then because manufacturers change our “good processed food” choices (I think it was Esselstyn in the E2 cookbook who said Grape Nuts was a good whole food/no oil/no sugar cereal to choose). Recently (maybe 6 months ago) Post started adding soy protein isolate to boost the protein number on their nutrition label for Grape Nuts. Soy protein Isolate is NOT a natural whole food; some scientists actually think it is very unhealthy!! Post Foods told me they added the soy isolate because they think consumers want more protein in their diets. Thankfully the generic/store brand is still basic ingredients.

      • Pam says

        I just bought some Grape Nuts last week and don’t see Soy Protein Isolate on the ingredients list. Have they removed it? Is it such a small amount they no longer have to list it? Is it good to eat now or not? Thanks!

    • says

      Ugh! I have been a regular Grape-Nut consumer and a label-reader for years, and I completely missed that ingredient change!

      Sure enough, I confirmed it when I looked at the ingredients list today. Adding processed gunk to their food to slightly increase the protein content is certainly not going to decrease anyone’s health risk—whoever heard of somebody having a protein shortage in their diet without a corresponding calorie shortage? Now who has heard of processed foods increasing health risk?

      Unfortunately, big business isn’t going to be concerned with health risk as nearly as they are with profits. As long as the average consumer is going to keep falling for marketing gimmicks like this, consumables will end up being chemistry experiments instead of real food.

  6. Tina says

    Wow… funny thing is I usually buy the regular tomato paste shown above on the left and then add Italian seasonings to it before using it as a pizza sauce for homemade mini pizzas for the kids…. just last week, I noticed the “With Italian Herbs” on the shelf and figured I’d save myself 30 seconds and a dirty dish by buying paste with herbs already in it… I didn’t even THINK to turn the can around and read the ingredients! What an eye-opener this post is! Thanks!

  7. Lee says

    Great article, Cathy. I am always amazed at what I find when reading the ingredient lists. They must have some profit motive (i.e., tomatoes are expensive?). They can reduce the content from 100% tomatoes to ~50%, in the crazy ingredient case, I guess.

    In looking at two cans of whole peeled tomatoes (not paste) I have on hand, one from Italy and one packed in California, both have basil in them. Aside from the tomatoes, tomato puree or juice and basil, only salt and citric acid are added in both, and I guess are necessary to maintain the product’s integrity/keep from spoiling. Interestingly, the italian San Marzano tomatoes only has 9mg of sodium per 1/2-cup serving v. 220mg for the American-made brand!

  8. Donna Dickson says

    Great article, you never know what’s lurking behind that innocent looking picture on the front. Thanks for sharing this. Dlee

  9. Bev says

    Thank you, Cathy. Ingredient lists can be entertaining – if you have an excellent sense of humor. Blueberry muffins without blueberries, fruit cereal with no fruit, etc. It is maddening when you think of how many people trust the major brands and think they must be reliable. I try to stay in the produce and bulk sections as much as possible, realizing that things that come in cans and boxes can be unknowns. I appreciate your sharp eyes! Keep it up. 😉

  10. V says

    If you look at the label on the offending product, it says “Tomato Paste Product” as opposed to “Tomato Paste.” Makes me think of the boxed ‘juice drinks’ for kids that are mostly sugar water. Consumers need to be aware of sound-alike products. Juice drink is not the same as juice; tomato paste product is not tomato paste.

  11. Kris McCormack says

    Thanks for the reminder, Cathy. I’m a diligent label reader, but it never hurts to do a spot check even on trusted producers. Having said that, I do count on certain canned and frozen foods because of the convenience factor. Eden Foods has some super products. The ingredients on their crushed tomatoes with basil: “Organic Roma tomatoes, organic dried sweet basil.” Perfect. And the tomatoes are available in glass jars.

  12. Andy says

    Good article, I noticed the one can says “Product” in small print under Tomato Paste, I am always leary of something that has product on the label as it usally means human made and not natural.

  13. Arun Mukherjee says

    I would like to know whether one needs organic corn as I am told that most North american corn is GM. I have had difficulty finding organic cornmeal.

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