Is THIS Food For You? Here’s how to decipher the ingredients, so YOU can decide

tomato pasteWhen we became savvy about traditional food and more aware of the dangers of many manufactured food products we overhauled our whole diet and pantry. Since we are more careful about the foods we buy, we study ingredient lists to familiarize ourselves with those products that are acceptable and those that are not. Gone are the polyunsaturated vegetable oils, soy (unfermented), and most processed foods. We buy organic products as much as possible. We also are quite careful not to buy products that have additives, including those that are not necessary to be included in the product. That means that just as we don’t buy most packaged goods anymore, it also means that we don’t buy tomato paste/sauce that has added sugar, jelly or jam with added sugar, or dairy products that are made with anything besides milk, probiotics, enzymes, and salt (preferably sea salt).

For a long time now, all our cakes and bread/challah have been homemade. However, if I have to buy bread, cake, or crackers, I carefully check the ingredients to make sure that they are few and (as much as possible) contain nothing that I wouldn’t put in if I was making it myself. I will buy coconut milk with only guar gum added, but nothing else. That means that if I can’t find it without the extra ingredients I don’t buy it. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but that’s my rule of thumb.

A quick, informal Facebook survey I took a little while ago revealed that many people just know which additives/E-numbers they must or want to avoid and accept all other ingredients. But just what is it that we are eating when we buy packaged goods with all sorts of ingredients that we can’t pronounce or decipher? Is it food? Is it healthy? How do we know?

Spices, seasonings, (sea) salt, baking powder, and other such ingredients that we use to enhance our own cooking are some of the food additives on these lists. Most of them, however, are items needed in order to keep processed food tasting good, looking pretty, and feeling nice in your mouth, make up for missing ingredients (like fats and nutrients), provide product consistency, and retard spoilage (good for long shelf life).

In the United States and Canada additives are listed on food packages by their natural or chemical names and in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Israel, and other countries they are listed as E numbers. The European Food Safety Authority, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the United Kingdom Food Standards Authority , and similar agencies in Australia and elsewhere approve or disapprove the addition of these ingredients based on their own safety assessments. This means that although many additives receive general across the board approval, there are also ingredients which are not uniformly approved – they are banned in some countries but not in others. Some ingredients may lose approved status and their use discontinued, other ingredients may be limited as to the amount that’s permissible to be included, and, of course, new ingredients will be also be added from time to time in the list of acceptable additives.

E-numbers are categorized according to the following numbering scheme, with each category containing a number of different additives:

100 – 199 – Colors
200 – 299 – Preservatives
300 – 399 – Antioxidants & Acidity regulators
400 – 499 – Thickeners, Stabilizers, & Emulsifiers
500 – 599 – pH Regulators & Anti-Caking agents
600 – 699 – Flavor enhancers
700 – 799 – Antibiotics [probably animal feed, not human food]
900 – 999 – Miscellaneous (waxes, synthetic glazes, improving agents, packaging gases, sweeteners, foaming agents)
1100 – 1599 – Other chemicals (New chemicals that do not fall into standard classification schemes such as emulsifiers, humectants, stabilizers, thickening agents, flavors, flavor solvents, and resolving agents)

Would you like to know what it is you are about to buy the next time you go to the supermarket? Download these E-number apps to use at the grocery and become a better informed consumer.

Following is the FDA’s list of food ingredients and their purposes. Click here for more information including examples of uses and the ingredient names found on product labels (see their question: “What is the role of modern technology in producing food additives?”):

Sounds yummy, doesn't it? See below to find out what you would be eating.
See below to find out what you would have bought. (From Nourishing Traditions, revised second edition, page 449. )

Anti-caking agents: Keep powdered foods free-flowing, prevent moisture absorption
Color Additives: Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and “fun” foods [Americans know these as “FD&C” colors or as “Red dye number…”. There are some colors which are exempt from having to be declared by name and can be identified as “colorings” or “color added”] Dough Strengtheners and Conditioners: Produce more stable dough
Emulsifiers: Allow smooth mixing of ingredients, prevent separation, keep emulsified products stable, reduce stickiness, control crystallization, keep ingredients dispersed, and to help products dissolve more easily
Enzyme Preparations: Modify proteins, polysaccharides and fats [ we would expect this in cheese and dairy products since it is enzymes which convert milk into cheese, yogurt, etc.]
Fat Replacers (and components of formulations used to replace fats): Provide expected texture and a creamy “mouth-feel” in reduced-fat foods
Firming Agents: Maintain crispness and firmness
Flavor Enhancers: Enhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor) [Monosodium glutamate in a variety of forms]
Flavors and Spices: Add specific flavors [natural and synthetic]
Gases: Serve as propellant, aerate, or create carbonation
Humectants: Retain moisture
Leavening Agents: Promote rising of baked goods
Nutrients: Replace vitamins and minerals lost in processing (enrichment), add nutrients that may be lacking in the diet (fortification) [very often synthetic vitamins]
pH Control Agents and acidulants: Control acidity and alkalinity, prevent spoilage Preservatives: Prevent food spoilage from bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast (antimicrobials); slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture and delay rancidity (antioxidants); maintain freshness
Stabilizers and Thickeners, Binders, Texturizers: Produce uniform texture; improve “mouth-feel”
Sweeteners: Add sweetness with or without the extra calories
Yeast Nutrients: Promote growth of yeast

Some of these products are totally natural, some start off as natural ingredients but are highly processed into a different product, and still others are totally synthetic. There are also ingredients that can come from a natural or synthetic source, yet are identified by the same name, such as ascorbic acid otherwise known as Vitamin C. The FDA explains the difference between natural and synthetic ingredients:

Natural ingredients are derived from natural sources (e.g., soybeans and corn provide lecithin to maintain product consistency; beets provide beet powder used as food coloring). Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients. Also, some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts.

Are synthetic products really the same as natural foods and do our bodies recognize them as food to be used to promote our health (or at least do us no harm)? What about those that are not found in nature? Many of these we would never put in homemade foods so why are we accepting them if they are on a supermarket shelf? If we really understood what we were eating, would we, could we?

* Answer to “Know Your Ingredients” above: You would have bought Nature’s Cupboard Hearty Granola Bread. At least it has no artificial preservatives added :). But would you call it “hearty granola bread?”

Related articles:
Artificial Food Colors linked to hyperactivity and adverse health effects

Other resources and information:
9 Most Dangerous Food Additives Everyone Should Avoid (And Why)



2 Comments on “Is THIS Food For You? Here’s how to decipher the ingredients, so YOU can decide

  1. I do pretty much what you do. Plus, I buy and eat mostly bug free salads, veggies, organic chicken, gravity filtered water, and bottled sparkling mineral water (so I can drink more), coconut milk and cream, no sodas. I bake my own cakes, cookies, and use coconut or maple sugar. American tuna fish. We mainly shop in health food store, delivery of ‘clean’ broccoli, cauliflower, and organic chicken, beef and lamb. Shopping here in Israel is a major adventure as I don’t buy what Israelis eat. I’m very particular, but of course sometimes slip. Purim is a challenge and very shopping time consuming. I’m used to all my shopping done within a 2 block area. Here in Israel, it’s in several neighborhoods and buses!

    • Hi Nechama,
      Thanks for sharing. We all do the best that we can and it seems that you’re doing very well. I agree with you that food shopping in Israel is a challenge and definitely more time consuming than the States. If your issue with Purim is healthy mishloach manot – I bake and include nuts or other natural foods. Purim sameach