Let’s start at the beginning, where farmers grow the basic ingredients fruits, vegetables and grains. These crops are often grown under less than favourable conditions with artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides and herbicides like roundup; the aim of the farmer is for yield not nutrition. Then, after picking, some of the foods are preserved using chemical powders and sprays.
Australian law (same for USA and UK) says that all packaged and tinned foods must have the ingredients listed on the packaging. Those ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight. Nutritionist and Founder of Changing Habits, Cyndi O’Meara shares how to understand food packaging labels.
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1. Read the ingredients list
Often when people read food labels they don’t seem to look at the ingredients, but rather at the percentage of fat, carbohydrates and proteins. In my way of thinking, this portion of the label is the last thing to look at. The most important thing to read is the ingredients. You want to make sure that the food you are eating is from nature and not from technology. Remember, the issue here is the quality of the food not the quantity and percentage of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat). Once you have established that the quality of the food in the package is natural, then you can have a look at the other information. For example, you may have a very low-fat food but the ingredients may all be of very low quality, whereas another food label may have a higher fat content but the quality of the food is far superior.
2. Understanding those numbers
Your next step on the journey to decipher food labels are those interesting numbers in brackets. Basically, the numbering system works like this: numbers between 100 and 180 are colours; 200 to 290 are preservatives; 300 to 320 are antioxidants; 322 to 494 are emulsifiers; and numbers 905 to 907 are mineral hydrocarbons.
3. What is an additive?
Most additives do serve a purpose in the processed food industry, but it is whether we choose to eat a diet full of processed food that decides how many of these additives we are exposed to. Choosing a diet of whole natural foods will ensure that your exposure to any dangerous additives is minimal.
There is another factor to be aware of when you read food labels. Let’s say a food producer buys an ingredient such as glucose syrup from another company. That glucose may contain additives such as sulphur dioxide (220), but the purchasing food producer doesn’t have to acknowledge that. All they have to mention on the label is glucose syrup. Another example of this is buying whey protein isolate –the manufacturers spec sheet may say grass fed whey protein isolate, soya emulsifier, canola oil, but the purchaser of this product need only put on their food label, grass fed whey protein isolate.
Another issue regarding food additives that is important for you to know and understand is that all food additives are tested via an animal model, usually mice (vegans beware). Each additive is tested individually to see if it is safe for human consumption and in what amounts. If it is determined to be safe at an agreed amount, then it is given approval by our governing bodies for food safety. At this point in time a mix of safe additives has never been tested. In other words, if we put two, three or fifty additives in one food how do we know that they are safe in combination. I’m yet to find a packaged food that just has one additive, so I’ve become dubious of all additives, not just the ones that have been deemed to be safe by our governing body.
It is a maze out there with food labelling. Some additives cause health problems whereas others are thought not to be dangerous. Many additives are said to be totally safe but it is important to remember that they may have been in the food chain for only a short time. They are not wholefoods, but chemicals extracted by manipulating foods, using genetically modified micro-organisms and chemical substances. By educating yourself on the additive and number system you can then become an aware buyer. You can help prevent the use of dangerous additives by choosing goods without suspect substances, and choosing carefully where you shop. The consumer can have an influence on the composition and production of foods.
So, there’s the lowdown on reading food labels. Next time you go to the supermarket, start reading the labels. You might try one product at a time, or one aisle per shopping trip. It’ll take time initially, but eventually you’ll work through the shopping list and know which foods and brands are best for your family.
Once you have done this, don’t think you can then become complacent. Manufacturers are continually changing their ingredients or being bought out by larger conglomerates who change components or suppliers, probably for cheaper costs and better profits or a better tasting food or drink. So periodically check the food you have become comfortable with to make sure the ingredients have not changed.
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