What’s Hiding in that Ingredient List?

Thank you to Ricola® Herb & Throat drops for sponsoring this post as part of an ongoing campaign with Socialstars. #swissherbs

I’ve been paying attention to what’s in my food for a long time now; I counsel my AnneTheRD clients to look not at calories and fat but at ingredient lists – and to make sure that what’s listed is not a mile long, and also all things they recognize as real food.

what to look for in ingredient lists

But it only occurred to me a couple years ago that food wasn’t the only thing I should be looking at ingredients lists of – much of our medicine cabinet and over-the-counter cough/cold products required a second look, too.

Years ago, I remember looking at the ingredient list on some old cough drops we had lying around, and saw the following: Menthol, Eucalyptus Oil, FD&C Blue 2, FD&C Red 40, Artificial Flavors, Glucose Syrup, Soy Lecithin, Sucralose, Sucrose, Water. Another one I found had this list: Menthol, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, beta carotene, FD&C blue no. 1, flavors, isomalt, sodium carboxymethylcellulose, soy lecithin, water.

Hold up. What?! There’s food dye, lots of stuff I can’t pronounce, artificial flavors, AND artificial sweeteners in something that’s supposed to make me feel better?! I seriously could not believe that a product like that was being marketed as health promoting, and I felt like an idiot I hadn’t realized sooner that I should be looking at ingredient lists on more than just food.

Since then, I worked to rebuild not just what we kept in our pantry but in our medicine cabinet and bathroom drawers, too, and during this process was when I first found Ricola.

I spotted Ricola one day at Whole Foods, and figured that since they were being sold at Whole Foods (which has high standards for products it accepts/what can be in those products) they had to be better than my old drops. Sure enough, here was the ingredient list on the Ricola revitalizing herb drops: Sugar, starch syrup, citric acid, sodium bicarbonate, ginseng extract, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavors, extract of lemon balm and a Ricola herb mixture (elder, horehound, hyssop, lemon balm, linden flowers, mallow, peppermint, sage, thyme, wild thyme), natural color (beta-carotene). 

Wow. That was sure an improvement, huh?


Ricola gave us free rein on the topic for this month’s partnership post, and I thought this would be an interesting and hopefully helpful thing to post about. I figure I can’t be the only one who didn’t realize that more than just packaged food has bizarre additives!

So, my friends: next time you’re picking something up at the drugstore, take a look at that ingredient list! I’ve been really surprised by what’s hiding in many products I previously wouldn’t have thought twice about buying. Obviously, if there’s no other choice, then sometimes you have to make do with the options that are there, but if you do have a choice, why not pick something with a more real, natural ingredient list?

What products have you swapped out lately for better alternatives? Another big one for me was chapstick, since I realized that mine had food dye in it, and considering I used it all day every day/probably swallowed half of it, I felt it was worth the switch! I found some great ones made with coconut oil and essential oils that I love. I’m planning to share a post with some of the best natural beauty/home products I’ve found soon, if you guys are interested! I was especially pumped to FINALLY find a good natural deodorant… and organic mascara!

Check out Ricola on social media! Facebook: and Twitter: @RicolaUSA


  1. 1

    What deodorant brand? Also on the hunt for one!

  2. 3

    I love this post! I read labels on everything and I also Google the companies to find out more about their ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. I recently have begun to switch out conventional medicines for healthier, homeopathic options. I’m trying out Zarbee Naturals, which Target just started stocking on their shelves.

  3. 5

    I’m so excited for this. I’ve been slowly switching over to natural products. So far I’ve found that makeup is the hardest.

  4. 7

    Vitamins! Which don’t even always have the ingredient list… crazy!

  5. 8

    I read an article the other day about how many supplements which claimed to be gluten free, they found traces of gluten in them! You can’t even trust labels!

  6. 10

    totally agree about looking for ingredients lists that are short and simple. BUT, i want to pause and grant a glorious exception to the weird-sounding ingredient called soy lecithin! I discovered soy lecithin as an amazing add-in when it comes to making bread. I dump a scoop of this stuff into my dough and it helps spread flavors/add-ins around evenly and prevent stickiness. From what I can tell, soy lecithin is a naturally occurring substance that’s a byproduct of soybean processing. Nothing too crazy despite the technical/chemical-sounding name. Final fact of my soy lecithin rant: I actually purchased my tub of soy lecithin at Whole Foods :)

    • 11

      Yeah, I’m not concerned with soy lecithin, beyond just that it seems to be in EVERYTHING and I know that’s a problem for those that need to avoid soy. I didn’t realize they sold it at Whole Foods – interesting! I’m glad you’ve found it helpful with bread! One of these days you need to mail me one of those loafs… :)

  7. 12

    These cough drops definitely look better than most of the alternatives, I’m just always wary of the catchall “natural flavors” ingredient since it’s so vague and can mean just about anything. Doesn’t necessarily mean bad things, it’s just unclear what is being added, natural or not.

    • 13

      Yeah, natural flavors isn’t something I avoid, but I’m with you that I do wish that product labels would disclose what exactly their “natural flavors” actually are!

  8. 14
    roadrunner says

    Great, thoughtful post!

  9. 15

    Most of my patients don’t even look at ingredient lists. Even when the list is simple, it can show you sooooo much about the product. I’m actually working on a nutrition presentation for work right now and half of it is on reading labels and ingredient lists. I honestly would think to look at one on something like a cough drop so thanks for pointing that out!

  10. 17

    I love Ricola cough drops! I would love to hear what other natural products that you love. I find sometimes the natural products don’t work as well or cause my sensitive skin to break out.

  11. 18

    Vitamin C and Ginseng…those things can be loaded with sugar and/sweeteners and binders!

  12. 19

    I’d love to see a post about natural home/beauty products! I’m slowly trying to replace my products with ones that don’t have a lot of funky ingredients. Whole Foods and Target are a few of my go-to places to find products!

  13. 20

    I love Ricola! Great post!

  14. 21

    How can Ricola cough drops be considered healthy when the first ingredient (meaning largest amount of product in drops) is SUGAR? And the second ingredient (meaning second largest amount of product in the drops) is STARCH SYRUP? Ricola, have you ever heard of honey, Yacon syrup, lacanto, sun choke syrup, coconut nectar, all of which are more healthful sweeteners for our bodies to consume. Also concerned about the “natural flavors” which often contain hidden gluten which folks with celiac and gluten sensitivity need to avoid.
    I found Honey Gardens Wild Cherry Bark Syrup to be the most helpful and healing for my coughs. Also seems to deeply relax the chest, lungs, heart chakra, and release the stress & tightness of coughing; provides nutrients to support respiratory system and overall wellness. Ingredients: raw honey, organic apple cider vinegar, elecampane root, platycodon root, propolis, usnea, wild cherry bark, ginger root, licorice root, essential oils from lemon, peppermint, and eucalyptus. Other ingredients: pure grain alcohol and water.

    • 22

      Thank you for your comment, Virginia! Will share this feedback with Ricola.

    • 23

      Anne, from an RD to an RD (with our extensive knowledge of evidence-based practice), I would love to hear your comment on sugar vs. honey, as they are both the main ingredients. How do you explain this to your clients?

      • 24

        Hi Lauren, Great question! I generally tell my clients to focus on an everything in moderation approach. While obviously I don’t encourage my clients (or readers) to consume sugar all day every day, in my opinion, being super stressed out about avoiding it all the time is more detrimental to health than occasionally indulging (with a mindful approach). In terms of the sugar source, I kind of feel like sugar is sugar – although I do generally recommend when cooking at home using the more natural forms (like honey and maple syrup) in favor of refined sugar, just because they have additional nutrients (vitamins/minerals), aren’t super processed, and generally have a lower glycemic response. Again, great question — I’d love to hear what you tell your clients, too!

  15. 25

    I can’t wait to hear about your natural deodorant! Being on the beauty products

  16. 26

    I like to use Smith’s Rosebud Salve. It’s like an all in one balm but I really like to use it on my lips. Made in USA and cruelty free. Has only 3 ingredients!

  17. 28

    Hi Anne,
    I’m a longtime reader and first time commenter, and I just wanted to say I would LOVE a roundup column on the natural products you use, as I’ve been slowly switching over recently. One new thing I’m doing is paying attention to ingredients in tampons and pads, and trying out Thanks so much for all the great, down to earth info on your blog! (I’m also I DC so I love all the local info, too :)

    • 29

      Thank you so much for reading, Rob, and for your kind words! :) I’ll be sharing the roundup post soon, probably next month — stay tuned! Thanks for your interest! I haven’t heard of Lola — will check it out! Tampons/pads are one thing I haven’t made the switch with yet, but need to… so much to change!!

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