Spotting Hidden Ingredients on Nutrition Labels

Science by Temple Stewart, RD

A recent study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed that a staggering 60% of food purchased by Americans contains various food additives, such as coloring or flavoring agents, preservatives, and sweeteners. With mounting evidence pointing to potential health risks associated with these synthetic additives, including links to ADHD, obesity, cancer, and asthma, consumers must learn how to identify hidden ingredients on nutrition labels. In this blog post, we’ll explore some common hidden ingredients, their potential health effects, and practical steps to make informed grocery shopping choices. [1]

Hidden Ingredients and Health Implications:

  • Secret Sugars: Sugar often finds its way into processed foods under one of more than 50 “sugar synonyms” used today. More than 68% of packaged foods reportedly contain added sweeteners, making vigilance essential when reading food labels. Certain foods, like granola, yogurt, and cereal, can contain hidden sugars. Not all sweeteners are harmful – natural options like stevia and monk fruit can be healthier when compared to more processed alternatives, due to their limited effect on body glucose. [2]
  • Food Dye: Food dyes have become pervasive in many products, and their consumption has skyrocketed by 500% in the last five decades, with children being the largest consumers. Potential harmful effects of food dyes include hyperactivity, allergic reactions, potential carcinogenic properties, impacts on thyroid function, and digestive problems. Although research is ongoing and sometimes inconclusive, knowing what to look for on labels can be beneficial. [3, 4, 5, 6, 7]
  • Preservatives: While not all preservatives are harmful, certain ones should raise caution. For instance, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) found in products like beer, crackers, and cereal have been linked to endocrine disruption. Propylparaben, used in pastries and tortillas, can potentially cause issues with normal development. [8, 9]
  • Artificial Flavors: Artificial flavors, though considered generally safe by the FDA, can trigger allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances in some individuals. Identifying them on labels can be tricky, but the term “artificial flavors” is often used to indicate their presence.



Practical Steps to Avoid Hidden Ingredients:

  • Be Informed about Ingredients: It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the names of ingredients you wish to avoid. Take the time to understand the various terms used to describe those ingredients, especially regarding sugars. If you encounter unfamiliar components, utilize reliable resources such as to gain insights into the quality of the food product or to research the specific ingredient.
  • Look Beyond the Main Ingredients: If you have allergies or sensitivities, be cautious, as certain additives or allergens might not be explicitly listed but can be present due to cross-contamination during production.
  • Purchase from Transparent Brands: Choose brands prioritizing transparency and consumer trust, providing detailed information about their ingredients and origin on social media or websites.
  • Cook at Home: While it’s important to be vigilant when reading food labels, cooking meals at home using fresh, whole ingredients can be a great way to avoid hidden additives altogether. 

By being informed consumers, we can navigate the complexities of nutrition labels and identify hidden ingredients that have potential health implications. While not all added ingredients are harmful, understanding how to read labels empowers us to make better food choices for ourselves and our families.

 Temple Stewart is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in low-carb/ketogenic diets. She graduated from the University of Tennessee before starting her career at the Veteran’s Affairs hospital in Bay Pines, Florida. She now operates a telehealth private practice focusing on health and weight loss. You can find her on Instagram @The.Ketogenic.Nutritionist.



  1. Sambu, S., Hemaram, U., Murugan, R., & Alsofi, A. A. (2022). Toxicological and Teratogenic Effect of Various Food Additives: An Updated Review. BioMed research international, 2022, 6829409.
  2. Acton, R. B., Vanderlee, L., Hobin, E. P., & Hammond, D. (2017). Added sugar in the packaged foods and beverages available at a major Canadian retailer in 2015: a descriptive analysis. CMAJ open, 5(1), E1–E6.
  3. Arnold, L. E., Lofthouse, N., & Hurt, E. (2012). Artificial food colors and attention-deficit/hyperactivity symptoms: conclusions to dye for. Neurotherapeutics : the journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics, 9(3), 599–609.
  4. Boris, M., & Mandel, F. S. (1994). Foods and additives are common causes of the attention deficit hyperactive disorder in children. Annals of allergy, 72(5), 462–468.
  5. Borzelleca, J. F., Capen, C. C., & Hallagan, J. B. (1987). Lifetime toxicity/carcinogenicity study of FD & C Red No. 3 (erythrosine) in rats. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 25(10), 723–733.
  6. Borzelleca, J. F., Hogan, G. K., & Koestner, A. (1985). Chronic toxicity/carcinogenicity study of FD & C Blue No. 2 in rats. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 23(6), 551–558.
  7. Kobylewski, S., & Jacobson, M. F. (2012). Toxicology of food dyes. International journal of occupational and environmental health, 18(3), 220–246.
  8. Environmental Working Group, “Skin Deep. Butylated Hydroxyanisole,” [Online]. Available:

This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.