1. The ingredients listed first - Since the first few ingredients list are also the main ingredients in the product, we want to be sure we recognize what they are and know that we're ok with eating them. If we're looking at whole wheat crackers, whole wheat flour had better be one of those first ingredients!
2. Ingredients ending in "-ose" - This suffix usually indicates some type of sugar, like "dextrose," "fructose," or "maltose."
3. Fats and oils - Here, we're looking at the type of fat (vegetable or otherwise) and whether it's listed as a transfat or partially-hydrogenated.
4. Ingredients we can't pronounce - If we can't pronounce the ingredient, chances are it doesn't occur in nature. Not all of these are necessarily "bad" for us, but they're also probably not doing us much good. And when there are more than one or two of them, a little red flag goes up in our mind.
All of these things add up to give us an idea of what we're getting inside the package. We don't have any allergies or food restrictions, so there aren't many ingredients that make us automatically put the product back on the shelf. Instead, we look at the whole picture and try to weigh the pros and cons of all the factors above.
Whether we ultimately buy the product or not often depends on what we want it for. If it's a one-time treat, we're not as fussy about the amount of sugar or the kind of fat. If it's something that we're thinking of eating every day as a healthy snack, then we get a little more picky.
What do you look for in an ingredient list? How do you decide whether to buy it or not?
Related: Agave Nectar: Healthful or Harmful?