Understanding food labels – what you need to know right now


Understanding food labels… what a mine field!  Where do you start?  Caramel colour is natural – right? It can be quite daunting navigating your way around various food labels – even foods that you think are healthy, whole foods. Various additives and perversities have been linked to all sorts of health conditions from asthma and allergies to gastrointestinal irritation and other gut issues.

At Rejuvenated For Life we are all about reducing your toxic load to assist you in creating a healthier and more radiant you.  One of the easiest ways you can get started is by reducing the amount of prepacked foods you eat. Whole foods are always better options! But sometimes even something as simple as dried nuts and seeds may have hidden additives or preservatives.

So we have put together a list for you to make life a little easier.  It contains tips and tricks for navigating your way around common food labels and gives you some of the main additives and preservatives you should be looking out for when reading labels.

One point to understand though is that every country has different rules and laws when it comes to food preservatives and additives.  As Julie Eady, author of ‘Additive Alert’ points out – Amaranth colouring (123) is a banned carcinogen in the US but is still permitted in Australia.  The FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) current laws also allow for a 5% loophole.  Eady states that this means “manufacturers can get away with not listing additives if they are present in an ingredient that comprises 5% or less of the product.”

The FDA (American Food and Drug Administration) has also recently indicated that it will be reinvestigating the safety of Caramel colouring, which is found in everything from soda drinks to sauces.  (http://www.health24.com/News/FDA-studying-safety-of-caramel-colouring-in-food-20140123)  This does not mean that it will be investigated in every country; they all have their own rules.  Do your best to stay informed and where possible, limit your intake of packaged foods.

Reading Labels – What you need to look out for!

  • All ingredients should usually be listed in order from largest to smallest quantity by weight.
  • Avoid ‘low fat’, ‘reduced fat’, ‘lite’ and ‘fat free’ as these are usually loaded with sugar to compensate for the lack of flavour.
  • Beware of compound ingredients. A compound ingredient is something that’s made up of more than two ingredients such as tomato sauce in a tin of sardines. Usually, all ingredients in the compound ingredient should be declared in the ingredients list except when there is less than 5% of the compound ingredient in the food. However, an ingredient that contains a known allergen should always be declared regardless.
  • The following common ingredients must be declared on food labels however small the amount – peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, sesame seeds, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Sulphite preservatives must be included if added at 10 or more milligrams per kilogram of food.
  • Every country has different rules when it comes to additives and preservatives and Julie Eady who wrote ‘Additive Alert’ notes that Amaranth colouring (123) is a banned carcinogen in the US is still permitted in Australia.
  • Avoid genetically modified foods (GMO’s) – avoid foods made with corn, soy, canola or cottonseed oils or that contain artificial sweeteners and ambiguous additives like xanthan gum, citric acid or maltodextrin.
  • Something is not necessarily organic even if it written on the label.  It must be certified organic for it to really be organic. This means it is certified through the NASAA or carries the Australian Certified Organic stamp here in Australia.

Look out for and avoid foods with the following ingredients, preservatives and additives:

  • Aspartame (E951) – artificial sweetener.
  • High fructose sugar syrup (HFCS) – highly-refined artificial sweetener.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)(E620, 621)- flavour enhancer.  MSG consumption side effects may include such symptoms as headaches, nausea and abdominal discomfort.
  • Trans fats – used to enhance and extend the shelf-life of foods.
  • Common food dyes – colours in the 100 range (blue E133, red E124, yellow E110/E102).
  • Preservatives – look for numbers in 200 and 300 range (sulphite preservatives E221-228, butylated hydroxyanisole/BHA and butylated hydrozyttoluene/BHT E320, sulphur dioxide (E220), potassium bromate, calcium propionate (281).
  • Olestra – synthetic fat that appears to interfere with nutrient absorption, used in light/lite crisps and chips.
  • Natural flavours and colours don’t always come from natural, edible ingredients – remember arsenic is also natural! Avoid unless the actual natural flavours and colours are listed. Even with natural additives such as turmeric – it is not the same as the turmeric spice and can be artificially produced.  Caramel colour which can be listed as 150, 150a, 150b, 150c or even 150i and 150ii has been linked to gastrointestinal issues and hypersensitivity.
  • Emulsifiers – natural fats and oils can be used to emulsify/combine and bond foods but look out for lecithin (E322) and the mono- and d-glycerides of fatty acids (E471).
  • Gelling agents, stabilisers and thickeners: guar gum (E412), agar (E406), carrageenan (E407).
  • Synthetic anti-caking agents: silicon dioxide (E551), calcium silicate (E552), sodium aluminosilicate (E554) – mainly used in powders, instant soups, some grated cheese.
  • Citric acid is primarily derived from GMO corn and can be found hiding in a LOT of products. Corn is one of the big five food allergens and GMO corn should especially be avoided. So try to give citric acid a miss.

The key thing to remember here is to look for things that have as little ingredients as possible; you don’t need a chemistry degree to understand them.  But always know that if you want the best health for you and your family, taking it a step further and make it yourself – then you know you are safe!

This article is meant for general information only and it is not intended for diagnostic purposes or to replace advice from your primary health care professional.  Please contact your health care professional before making any changes to your dietary plan or before taking any new supplementation.

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Claire Yates

By Claire Yates

Claire Yates is a Nutritional Medicine Practitioner, holding a Bachelor of Health Science, who is passionate about paleo nutrition, health and having fun! She is the author of Optimal Health The Paleo Way and is a self-confessed lover of good food and good coffee.

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