Reading a food label is as simple as reading the ingredients. But what are all the numbers and how do you understand the technical terms?
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.
Since January 1987, food companies have been required to identify the additives they use, rather than using vague terms like ‘colouring’ or ‘preservative’. But unless you know how to decode those numbers, you still don’t know what you’re eating.
Decoding the nutritional information
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.
The use of colourings is a debatable. Colourings are purely cosmetic and serve no particular purpose for the preservation and taste of foods. The Hyperactive Children’s Support Group has recommended the avoidance of the following numbers: 102, 107, 110, 120, 122, 123, 124, 127, 132, 133, 150, 151, 155, 160b, 210, 211, 220, 250, 251, 319, 320, 321, 421, 620, 621, 627, 631, 635 and 951. Notice that the majority are colours and are usually found in children’s treats.
The following additives can be dangerous for asthmatics and people sensitive to aspirin. They should also be avoided by hyperactive children and adults, and should not be permitted in food for babies and young children. They are: 212, 213, 216, 218, 221–224, 310–312, 621–623, 627 and 631. Possible carcinogenic (cancer forming) additives are: 110, 123, 131, 142, 210, 211, 213, 214–217, 239, 249–252, 330, 321, 407, 431–433, 435, 436, 466, 530, 553, 900, 914, 943a, 950–952, 954, 967 and 1201.
Most additives do serve a purpose in the processed food industry, but it is whether you choose to eat a diet full of processed food that decides how many of these additives you 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 mention grass fed whey protein isolate, soya emulsifier, and canola oil, but the purchaser of this product may only put ‘grass fed whey protein isolate’ on the food label,
What about packaged foods that are ‘healthy’?
There is a new term in the food industry called ‘clean labelling’, where the numbers and names of the additives are changed to make it look like a food rather than a chemical additive, and no numbers are required. Examples include; yeast extract (flavour enhancer), rosemary extract (antioxidant), celery extract (preservative), citrus fibre (acidity regulator), natural flavour (48 chemicals) and natural colour (for example, propylene glycol).
Although a food might say it is organic, fair trade, natural, non-GMO, or sustainable, it does not mean it is free from chemicals and preservatives. The safest way to avoid additives is by eating a diet rich in whole foods, and fresh fruit and vegetables.