what you eat? – how to read food labels

I believe there’s one positive side of this whole pandemic situation – that people started more taking care about their health and trying to be more aware of what they eat. At least I hope that. It should be obvious that if you keep your body healthy and your immune system is strong you’re going to be less prone not only to the most famous sickness in the world, but any sickness. Sadly mainstream media does not inform how to boost your immunity, how to make your body stronger. They don’t teach about small but important daily habits you can develop (completely for free) to improve your immunity and health. And this is very sad because if we would all started treating our bodies more like temples and less like machines that’s utilizing what the food industry has to offer, I think that we would be not only healthier but also happier. And I do not say it from the position of a person whose diet is impeccable, I eat only organic food and have absolutely no health problems. I am only a weak-willed human and I sometimes eat highly processed foods and those generally considered unhealthy. With the fact that I do it with full awareness. And I would like to instill this awareness in you.

It’s going to be a long post, so grab yourself a tea or coffee and make yourself comfortable 🙂

There’s lots of things you can do to improve your awareness about what you put in your mouth and it’s completely for free.

It’s reading food labels.

Do you ever look at them? If you judge the food product only from the front of the packaging – usually very colourful and promising, you may actually be very disappointed when you read the label.

Couple days ago we’ve got delivered a new product in the cafe I work in. Very eco-looking packaging – vegan, gluten free, milk free – healthy you would think. BTW, did you noticed that in last couple years everything that is labelled as vegan/vegetarian – is considered healthy? Gluten free- healthy? Dairy free – healthy? So I took a look on the back of the packaging to see the label and that’s what I saw:

“Ingredients: Sugar, Rice Flour, Palm Oil, Belgian Dark Chocolate (12%) [Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Emulsifier (Soya Lecithins), Flavouring], Rapeseed Oil, Golden Syrup, Cornflour, Tapioca Starch, Water, Soya Flour, Salt, Emultisifires (Soya Lecithins, Mono- and Diglicerydes of Fatty Acids), Flavouring, Colour (Carotens)”

After reading this all my enthusiasm for this promising product went away. What’s wrong you would ask? OK, lets go through this ingredients list.

What is the ingredient list?

The ingredient list on a food label is the listing of each ingredient in descending order of predominance by weight. It means that the ingredient that weighs the most is listed first, and the ingredient that weighs the least is listed last. In some cases, manufacturer also needs to show the percentage of each ingredient. All ingredients should be listed by its common or usual name so it’s easy to recognize and understand by customers.

Every food product has to have the ingredients list on the packaging, also most of them has nutrition facts label contains product-specific information (serving size, calories, and nutrient information), also explains the % Daily Value and gives the number of calories used for general nutrition advice. For me personally the most important is the list of ingredients. Nutritional value is also important to know, especially if you’re on some kind of diet that requires counting macros (calories, carbohydrates, fats etc.) For me in the nutritional label important is how many carobohydrates product contains, how much of it is fiber and if there’s any extra added sugar in the product.

So lets have a look on our example:

  • Sugar is the ingredient that weighs the most in this product – I’m sure you know that sugar is not the healthiest foods in the world, in fact it’s one of the most unhealthy food ingredients. Do not confuse the sugar naturally contained in, for example, fruits with the sugar that you can buy in the supermarket, because they are two different sugars. But here we are not going to go into details because this post would never ends 😉 After Wikipedia: the average person consumes about 24 kilograms (53 lb) of sugar each year, with North and South Americans consuming up to 50 kilograms (110 lb) and Africans consuming under 20 kilograms. Excessive consumption of sugar has been implicated in the onset of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and tooth decay. Numerous studies have tried to clarify those implications, but with varying results, mainly because of the difficulty of finding populations for use as controls that consume little or no sugar. In 2015, the World Health Organization recommended that adults and children reduce their intake of free sugars to less than 10%, and encouraged a reduction to below 5%, of their total energy intake;
  • Rice Flour – common substitute for wheat flour in gluten free food products. It’s simply finely milled rice;
  • Palm Oil – became very popular when the United States banned the addition of trans fats to products. Palm oil has become an easy and cheap replacement as it does not contain them. It does, however, contain saturated fatty acids. But the problem with palm oil is somewhere else. Well, the oil from the flesh of the palm oil in industrial applications is divided into the so-called fractions. One of them is the called: palm stearin. It contains high concentration of saturated stearic acid, which makes it solid at room temperature. And this makes it extremely attractive to producers. It easily gives products a “buttery” structure. However, when processing palm oil, another fraction is formed – the called: palm olein. It is high in monounsaturated oleic acid but liquid at room temperature. For this reason, it is often hardened by hydrogenation. And this causes the formation of harmful compounds in it. The hydrogenation process produces trans fatty acids – extremely harmful to health. However, we may not find out from the labels what type of palm fat was used. Also from ecological point of view (which became so important recently) according to WWF, irresponsible expansion of oil palm plantations has negatively impacted many vulnerable and threatened species, also the rights and interests of local communities and indigenous peoples. Should also mention about dramatic employment conditions of plantation workers, soil erosion and pollution, as well as air pollution. The burning of forests and peatlands to clear and manage land for palm oil plantations releases massive quantities of carbon dioxide (hmm… who than produces more CO2, average person like you and me or giant plantation owners?). Take a look at WWF website, I linked it below, it’s actually quite interesting how food industry exploits ecosystem.
  • Belgian Dark Chocolate (12%) [Cocoa Mass, Sugar, Cocoa Butter, Emulsifier (Soya Lecithins), Flavouring] – 12% of the whole product is Belgian Chocolate, but chocolate apart from cocoa mas and cocoa butter is also made with sugar listed as a second ingredient perdominance by weight. But let’s focus on Soya Lecithins, as it’s quite mysterious ingredient. Dr. Axe describes very accurately and simply what Soya Lecithins is: manufacturers use it when mixing oils and water in a food product to become uniform and smooth in texture. Soy is that it contains isoflavones or phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring estrogenic compounds. Isoflavones are found in many different plant foods, soybeans contain uniquely rich amounts. Although consuming isoflavones may have potential health benefits, like improving menopause and osteoporosis symptoms, there are concerns about their estrogen-like properties and how they affect the thyroid, uterus and breasts. That’s why Dr. Axe advises to eat soy fermented – fermentation process breaks down the antinutrients that are present in soybeans. But that’s a whole different story… Also last one on the list is: Flavouring – might be natural or artificial, but we don’t know that, and it doesn’t say what flavour is that;
  • Rapeseed Oil – naturally low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat, which is excellent for your health, but…It’s also famous for its affordability and versatility in food industry and in chemical and automotive industries. Follow the money – most rapeseed oil (also called canola oil) sold in grocery stores is genetically modified (although I found that all the rapeseed oil produced in UK is GM free). Growers genetically modify plants to produce higher yields and more affordable products. What are the constituencies for us? Most research does suggest that genetically modified products are generally safe. But as we know from the long history of food, tabacco and alcohol industry, what’s commonly used to be considered as healthy or “generally safe” often proved to be quite the opposite;
  • Golden Syrup – it’s production according to Wikipedia seems to be quite complicated but at the end it is just – sugar but in a different form;
  • Cornflour – very finely ground corn kernels, used in baked goods or to thicken liquids. Is it healthy? It depends, corn as a vegetable has plenty of different nutrients, but again according to Dr. Axe, almost all the corn in the U.S. is genetically modified and sprayed with dangerous pesticides. Organic corn is loaded with fibre and protein, also rich in anti-oxidants and easy to digest;
  • Tapioca Starch – popular gluten free flour made from cassava roots. Again after Dr. Axe, it’s used as a thickening agent, is made up of almost all carbohydrates and is very low in all types of fats, sugar, fiber, protein, sodium, and essential vitamins or minerals. Why then why use it?;
  • Water – not much to explain here;
  • Soya flour – After sciencedirect.com: soya flour has improving effects on dough handling and product quality. The enzyme lipoxygenase bleaches the xanthophyll pigments, resulting in a whiter crumb. Seriously?;
  • Salt – natural rock salt or himalayan is great, but I don’t think they used it here;
  • Emultisifires (Soya Lecithins, Mono- and Diglicerydes of Fatty Acids)Soya Lecithins we know already, the rest on the other hand are simply food additives called E471. Generally used to improve texture, volume of product, also prolongs shelf life and freshness. Approved as “generally recognized as safe”, although it may increase the amounts of trans fatty acids in final products;
  • Colour (Carotens) – natural food colourant driven from wide range of plants (for example: palm oil).

So…it took mi couple hours to go through one small product and write about it. And you may think: what?? you want me to google all the ingredients one by one while I’m shopping? No, because we would all die starving analysing each ingredient in each product we would like to put in the shopping basket.

But what this analyse let us know about this product?

It’s made mostly with sugar and different flours and starches, fats and additives. It’s vegan, gluten and dairy free, sounds great but after reading description of each ingredient do you still feel like it’s healthy or you feel like you’d love to eat it? I think the main problem is, that we are easily tempted by pretty packaging, tasty looking product that looks the same like you would make it at home or as your grandma used to make. But unfortunately it doesn’t mean that it’s made the same way as you or your grandma would make it. In modern food industry there’s lots of ingredient’s that we don’t even know that exists, that only pretends the ingredients we know, but are cheaper or easier to produce or grow.

If you take a quick look on the back of the food item you want to buy, and you see that list of ingredients is very long and has ingredients that names you cannot even read, you might want to put it back on the shelf. Especially if it’s simple one or two ingredients product, like for example jogurt or chocolate bar.

To help you understand what I mean I will show you another example: we have three packs of cheese snacks from different brands. All strongly advertised for kids.

Let’s take a look on the ingredients list:

Cheese snack number 1

Ingredients: Milk. Added Ingredients: Acidity Regulators (Citric Acid, Lactic Acid), Paprika, Vitamin D

Cheese snack number 2

Ingredients: Cheese Dip: Skimmed Milk (Water, Skimmed Milk Powder), Cheese, Concentrated Whey (from Milk), Inulin, Milk Protein, Milk Fat, Emulsifying Salt (Polyphosphates), Modified Starch, Calcium Phosphate, Acidity Regulator (Lactic Acid), Corn and Potato Snack: Corn Flour, Potato Granules, Palm Oil, Flavourings, Sugar, Salt, Onion Powder, Emulsifier (Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids), Yeast Extract, Garlic Powder, Parsley, Acid (Citric Acid), Rosemary, Horseradish

Cheese snack number 3

Ingredients: Milk. Free From: Artificial Colours, Artificial Flavours, Artificial Preservatives.

I’m sure you can see the difference, that you wouldn’t spot looking only on the front of the packaging advertised as cheese snack for kids. And it’s exactly the same with all the food products you buy. Lists of ingredients in potentially the same or very similar products might vary a lot.

Moreover some of the food products cannot be manufactured other way than in complicated processes, that are more like laboratory processes rather than cooking. For example vegan foods that pretend no-vegan foods – like vegan bacon, vegan chicken, vegan cheese, vegan burgers etc. Vegan diet is advertised as healthy and on based on this opinion lots of people still think that they can become healthy eating vegan highly processed foods. Why they buy it? Because it’s easy, even tasty, doesn’t cost any effort to prepare and if someone likes meat they can cheat their brain consuming something that pretends to be meat.

Because I think examples are the best way to explain what I mean, I will show you another one. Vegan bacon rashers.

Ingredients: Water, Rehydrated Textured Soya and Wheat Protein (22%)(Water, Soya Protein, Wheat Protein, Salt, Soya Bean Oil, Natural Flavouring), Rapeseed Oil, Stabilisers: Carrageenan, Guar Gum, Methyl Cellulose, Wheat Protein, Soya Protein, Salt, Dextrose, Natural Flavourings, Colouring Foods: Blackcurrant, Radish, Apple, Starch, Natural Smoke Flavouring, Chicory Root Fibre, Acid: Citric Acid

Let’s break down this list and have a closer look on each ingredient:

  • Water – main ingredient, it’s first on the list so this bacon rashers are made mainly with water;
  • Rehydrated Textured Soya and Wheat Protein – it’s a highly processed food product that’s manufactured by isolating the soy protein from other components found in whole soybeans or other plants like wheat. It’s a result of thermo-mechanical process, which combines high heat, high shear, and high pressure to form a product that can be moulded into various forms for different uses. By itself, textured vegetable protein has a bland flavour, so it’s easy to add spices and other flavourings to make it taste like the meat product it’s imitating. What’s interesting, that it’s not unusual to find textured vegetable protein in foods that contains meat, such as frozen or canned pasta dishes. That’s because its texture is similar to that of meat, so it can serve as a meat extender, making it seem as if the dish contains more expensive meat than it actually does. Cheeky, isn’t it?
  • Rapeseed Oil – we’ve mentioned about it before;
  • Carrageenan – a family of marine polysaccharides isolated from seaweeds, has been at the heart of considerable debate in recent years. They are widely used in the food industry, for their gelling, thickening, and stabilizing properties. Their main application is in dairy and meat products, due to their strong binding to food proteins. As of 2011, global sales of carrageenan were estimated at $640 million. The largest producer of industrial carrageenan was the Philippines, where cultivated seaweed produces about 80% of the world supply, while China is the main exporter to global markets in the US and Europe (after Wikipedia). The use of carrageenan in infant formula, organic or otherwise, is prohibited in the EU for precautionary reasons, but is permitted in other food items. As of 2018, carrageenan was deemed non-toxic under certain consumption levels (75 mg/kg bw per day), although further research was recommended. Simply there’s no enough research to know how carrageenan impacts colon microbiome, digestion, there is no knowledge if and how it impacts elderly people or the one with chronic digestive issues;
  • Guar Gum – is made from legumes called guar beans, it’s a food additive known also as E412. It’s used in food manufacturing because it’s soluble and able to absorb water, forming a gel that can thicken and bind products. Guar gum is generally low in calories and mainly composed of soluble fiber. So might have positive impact on digestion. Soluble fibers such as guar gum have been shown to have cholesterol-lowering effects. High amounts of guar gum can cause problems like intestinal obstruction and death. The amounts in processed foods do not usually cause side effects but can sometimes lead to mild digestive symptoms;
  • Methyl Cellulose – is a filler used to add bulk — rather than more real ingredients — to processed foods. It’s a cheap additive that allows processed food manufacturers to increase the weight and improve the texture of products without adding any nutritional benefits. Methylcellulose is the active ingredient in many laxatives, but animal studies indicate that the additive may promote colorectal cancer at levels typically present in processed foods;
  • Wheat Protein, Soya Protein – similar to Rehydrated Textured Soya Protein and Wheat Protein – highly processed carbohydrate with no nutritional benefits;
  • Salt – also mentioned above;
  • Dextrose – simply – processed sugar. Produced by culturing sugar with bacteria, marketed as a “more natural” way to preserve, sweeten, or texturize processed food. Can cause: upset stomach, fatigue, and increased thirst;
  • Natural Flavourings – according to FDA definition: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit, or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavouring rather than nutritional.” In the EU, the natural flavour has to originate from a vegetable, animal, or microbiological source and must be made through a traditional food preparation process. India requires that they’re derived exclusively from vegetables and doesn’t allow microbiological processes. In Japan, natural flavours can be made from a limited list of plant and animal sources. In Canada, any flavourings that are not made from plant, animal, or microbiological sources have to be called “artificial flavourings.” In 2002, regulations in Australia and New Zealand were revised to remove any references to natural flavours, making it impossible to differentiate between artificial and natural flavours anymore. Great example of how natural flavours are used is mentioned by foodrevolution.org. “a piece of ripe fruit can taste amazing. But if a farm picks its fruit too green, and ships it 10,000 miles, it may lack flavor, color, and sweetness. If a company can add some natural flavors (plus a hefty dose of sugar and maybe even some food dye), suddenly the food will taste sweet and flavorful, and look brightly colored. The result is a poor substitute for real food, but these practices can be profitable, and most consumers will be fooled. Creating these substances is big business. The food industry employs what are called “flavor scientists,” whose main job is to mimic the taste of different foods and make them more flavorful and even addictive to consumers.”
  • Colouring Foods: Blackcurrant, Radish, Apple – food ingredients used by the food industry for the primary purpose of imparting colour to food and beverage products. They are manufactured from fruits, vegetables, flowers, spices, algae or other edible source materials;
  • Natural Smoke Flavouring – produced by a wood-burning process called “pyrolysis”. As an alternative to traditional smoking, producers add them to a range of different foods to give a “smoked” flavour. They can also be added to foods which are not traditionally smoked. Smoke flavourings are regulated separately from other flavourings as they consist of complex mixtures including unidentified substances, which give rise to different safety issues;
  • Chicory Root Fibre – chicory root is a bit wood-like and, due to its fibrous composition, it’s not digested in the small intestine but instead maintains its forms as is travels to the colon or large intestine. Contains inulin, a type of plant-based carbohydrate that cannot be broken down by digestive enzymes. Inulin is classified as both a soluble fiber and a type of prebiotic. In general – beneficial for your body;
  • Acid: Citric Acid – flavouring and preservative in food and beverages, especially soft drinks and candies, also called E330. Citric acid can be added to ice cream as an emulsifying agent to keep fats from separating, to caramel to prevent sucrose crystallization, or in recipes in place of fresh lemon juice. Over-ingestion may cause abdominal pain and sore throat.

If you ask for my opinion, it’s healthier to eat a slice of real bacon, rather than highly processed slice of something that kind of looks and kind of tastes like bacon. And what do you think about that? Do you buy or eat this kind of foods? Do you feel better after eating them? If you are interested in this subject and you would like to read more informations about highly processed vegan food and other food ingredients take a look at this website: https://wellness.consumerfreedom.com/plant-based-meat/

Brave and patient one who managed to read until the end. I also learned a couple new thing while writing this post. I hope I encouraged you to start reading labels and ingredients list. And if health factors still didn’t convinced you to put some of the food items back on the shelf, ask yourself: do I really want to spend my money in this food product?

Source of knowledge:

https://www.tygodnik-rolniczy.pl/articles/wies-i-rodzina/olej-palmowy-kiedy-jest-szkodliwy-dla-zdrowia/

https://wwf.panda.org/discover/our_focus/food_practice/sustainable_production/palm_oil/

https://draxe.com/nutrition/what-is-soy-lecithin/

https://www.hardquestionstoanswer.com/2022/01/04/is-rapeseed-oil-banned-in-the-uk/

https://draxe.com/nutrition/corn-flour/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/soy-flour

https://foodadditives.net/emulsifiers/mono-and-diglycerides/

https://www.carotene.org/food-coloring/

https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/food-labels.html

https://www.verywellfit.com/textured-vegetable-protein-4693634

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrageenan

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/guar-gum#TOC_TITLE_HDR_1

https://wellness.consumerfreedom.com

https://foodrevolution.org/blog/natural-flavors/

https://natcol.org/library/what-are-colouring-foods/

https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/topics/topic/smoke-flavourings

https://draxe.com/nutrition/chicory-root/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citric_acid