Decoding Nutrition Labels: The Ingredients List

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Apr 13, 2015

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Not all the food we buy is farm fresh. In modern day nutrition, processed or packaged foods play a starring role. Whether it’s that bottle of ketchup or jam you use each day, the tetra pack of juice you sip between meals, the sliced cheese or packaged cookies you pick up for snack time, even the bread that is baked at a local bakery—it’s all processed. If a particular food item has been through a manufacturing and packaging process, then by law, it must be sold with a label stating exactly what it contains.

But those nutrition labels are only so helpful. With ingredients that stretch into eight or more syllables and tax our memories of eighth standard chemistry, the contents of our food are as mysterious as ever. This series will help you decode these labels, starting with the most confusing section of all: the list of ingredients.

THE INGREDIENTS LIST

A food label must list every ingredient that has gone into the making of an item, even if that ingredient isn’t food stuff at all, but rather, a chemical added for a particular purpose. And there are more of these ‘additives’ than you think. They fall under four general categories.

Emulsifiers

Emulsifiers are chemicals that allow fats to blend smoothly with water, thus giving food items a creamier texture.

“Sometimes emulsifiers are hardly listed on a food label, but if you’re eating ketchup, chocolate, margarine, processed yoghurts and ice-creams, you can be sure that emulsifiers have been used,” says Apeksha Thakkar, nutritional consultant at Saifee Hospitals, Mumbai.

In your daily diet, you probably ingest any number of emulsifiers. Pectin is a common one, used in many products including processed yoghurt, in which it keeps the curd from separating or becoming too runny. Lethacin, mono- and di-glycerides are also widely used emulsifiers. Emulsifiers cause no known side effects in humans, but have been linked to some obesity and metabolic syndromes in mice, according to a study published in the scientific journal Nature. Even in small amounts, the study said, emulsifiers are thought to disrupt mice’s natural gut bacteria, causing stomach upsets.

Preservatives

Preservatives are often added to increase the shelf life of foods and prevent spoilage. Believe it or not, sugar and salt, which have been used as preservatives since ancient times, are still the most widely used preservatives on the planet, earning them the epithet ‘White Poison,’ says Thakkar.

“For healthy adults, I would recommend no more than two teaspoons of salt per day,” Thakkar advises, “but when you’re eating processed foods, you can easily overshoot that mark because of the high salt content used to preserve the food.”

For sugar, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends only six teaspoons per a day for healthy adults, but as with salt, we tend to eat many times that amount because we’re not aware of the hidden sugars in processed foods. One trick to recognizing secret sugars in the ingredients list? Look for words ending in –ose.

“If your label states that a product contains glucose, dextrose, maltose, [or fructose] these are often just versions of sugar,” Thakkar warns. “Learning to identify the hidden sugar content will give us a clear idea of how much we’re consuming.”

But thanks to modern food chemistry, salt and sugar are not the only preservatives in use anymore. A group of chemicals known as ‘sulfites’ are often used as preservatives—look for words that contain ‘sulph’ or ‘sulf’ in the ingredients list. While not necessarily harmful to humans, sulfite sensitivity is not uncommon. Symptoms of sulfite sensitivity include: hives and itchiness; upset stomach, diarrhea, or vomiting; trouble swallowing or breathing; flushed face; and dizziness or a drop in blood pressure. If you experience any of these symptoms after consuming sulfites, consider consulting a doctor. If you have asthma, consider avoiding sulfites altogether; about 5-10 percent of asthmatics experience severe reactions including anaphylactic shock.

Other common preservatives include ascorbic and citric acids and sorbates. Sodium nitrate and nitrite, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are commonly used to preserve foods as well; while this latter group are probably fine in the small doses consumed through a healthy diet, there have been some studies that suggest a link to cancer in lab animals.

Flavouring Agents

Flavouring agents are often used to restore or enhance taste that may have been lost during the packaging process. The most common is monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG is used liberally in Chinese and fast food, as well as many other processed foods on our shelves at home, and can also go by the names vetsin, ajinomoto, and accent. MSG sensitivity in humans is not uncommon. Allergic symptoms include: headache; facial pressure or tightness; flushed face; sweating; numbness or tingling in the face, neck and elsewhere; heart palpitations; chest pain; nausea; and weakness. While MSG is still considered safe for human consumption, it has shown to have adverse health effects on lab animals.

Artificial Colours

“Artificial colours are added to thousands of food products these days, even those that you never would have thought to be coloured artificially, such as tinned peas, tinned fruit and yoghurt,” says Mumbai based nutritionist S. Pallavi. “This is done to restore its natural colour or to make the item look more appealing, especially for children. However, there is evidence that food additives may increase hyperactivity in children and trigger allergic reactions in asthmatics.”

However, Pallavi continues, artificial colouring has been tentatively linked to increased hyperactivity in children and allergic reactions in asthmatics. Though there is no conclusive proof, some studies show asthmatics can react badly to the following colouring agents: tartazine (yellow/orange food colour used widely in drinks, cakes, cream biscuits, puddings, certain meats and fried snack items); carmoisine (a reddish purple food dye used to colour jams, raspberry ice-creams and drinks and in packet soups); chocolate brown HT (used in a wide range of malt drinks); Patent Blue V (used in some tinned vegetables); and indigo carmine (used in meat products and gravy mixes). In light of this, says Pallavi, a general rule to follow – especially for asthmatics – is to compare brands and pick one with the least food colouring and additives.

There’s no denying that packaged foods have crept into our diets like never before, and not all additives are innocuous. But as long as your diet is predominantly full of fresh fruit and vegetables, and processed foods are consumed sparingly, you’re in a healthy place.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series, which tackles calorie counts!

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

  1. Sunny65

    A succint overview that touches on all the important aspects. Can’t wait for the next part!

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