Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Exactly How To Read Ingredients

Food labeling is also regulated by the FDA. The general rule is that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If the first listed ingredient is Sugar, then this candy bar or cereal box contains more sugar by weight than any other ingredient. This is good to know, but only the beginning of the story.

Today's story is about ingredients that stop you mid way to question "what in the world is _________? and exactly why is it in this box?"

It used to be that manufacturers could get away with using scientific terms instead of common terms like using sodium chloride instead of just salt. They can't anymore. If the ingredients contain salt, they need to be listed as salt. 

Because some ingredients contain sub-ingredients, wheat is a typical example, they can't just list that ingredient. They need to list the sub-ingredients between parentheses. 

Major food allergens must be declared. At trace levels you should see the "manufactured in a facility that uses ________," or "May contain traces of _________" These are: 
  • Milk
  • Egg
  • Fish
  • Crustacean Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts Complete List
  • Wheat
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans

Listing spices and additives are still tricky business. 
  • Spices don't need to be broken down beyond this point.

  • Direct additives are added directly to foods either for esthetic reasons like colors, to add nutrition like vitamins, or to preserve the food like salt. Chemical preservatives require a "plain english" explanation. Example: Ascorbic Acid to Promote Color Retention

  • Indirect when the food comes in contact with traces of other foods or products at at point in the process from manufacturing to consuming. These do not always have to be claimed. There are rules regulating what is listed in the ingredients. So, for example, if the materials that packaging is made out of would leave traces of some sort of chemical on your food whether it is plastic, metal, or paper. These materials are considered indirect additives. At the grocery store, they use ethylene gas to mature fresh produce as needed. This is also considered an additive and should be regulated by the FDA even if it is not listed as an ingredient.

 Types of Food Ingredients

The following summary lists the types of common food ingredients, why they are used,
and some examples of the names that can be found on product labels. Some additives are
used for more than one purpose.
Types of IngredientsWhat They DoExamples
of Uses
Names Found
on Product Labels
PreservativesPrevent food spoilage from bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast (antimicrobials); slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture and delay rancidity (antioxidants); maintain freshnessFruit sauces and jellies, beverages, baked goods, cured meats, oils and margarines, cereals, dressings, snack foods, fruits and vegetablesAscorbic acid, citric acid, sodium benzoate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite, calcium sorbate, potassium sorbate, BHA, BHT, EDTA, tocopherols (Vitamin E)
SweetenersAdd sweetness with or without the extra caloriesBeverages, baked goods, confections, table-top sugar, substitutes, many processed foodsSucrose (sugar), glucose, fructose, sorbitol, mannitol, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, saccharin, aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium (acesulfame-K), neotame
Color AdditivesOffset 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" foodsMany processed foods, (candies, snack foods margarine, cheese, soft drinks, jams/jellies, gelatins, pudding and pie fillings)FD&C Blue Nos. 1 and 2, FD&C Green No. 3, FD&C Red Nos. 3 and 40, FD&C Yellow Nos. 5 and 6, Orange B, Citrus Red No. 2, annatto extract, beta-carotene, grape skin extract, cochineal extract or carmine, paprika oleoresin, caramel color, fruit and vegetable juices, saffron (Note: Exempt color additives are not required to be declared by name on labels but may be declared simply as colorings or color added)
Flavors and SpicesAdd specific flavors (natural and synthetic)Pudding and pie fillings, gelatin dessert mixes, cake mixes, salad dressings, candies, soft drinks, ice cream, BBQ sauceNatural flavoring, artificial flavor, and spices
Flavor EnhancersEnhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor)Many processed foodsMonosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed soy protein, autolyzed yeast extract, disodium guanylate or inosinate
Fat Replacers (and components of formulations used to replace fats)Provide expected texture and a creamy "mouth-feel" in reduced-fat foodsBaked goods, dressings, frozen desserts, confections, cake and dessert mixes, dairy productsOlestra, cellulose gel, carrageenan, polydextrose, modified food starch, microparticulated egg white protein, guar gum, xanthan gum, whey protein concentrate
NutrientsReplace vitamins and minerals lost in processing (enrichment), add nutrients that may be lacking in the diet (fortification)Flour, breads, cereals, rice, macaroni, margarine, salt, milk, fruit beverages, energy bars, instant breakfast drinksThiamine hydrochloride, riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin, niacinamide, folate or folic acid, beta carotene, potassium iodide, iron or ferrous sulfate, alpha tocopherols, ascorbic acid, Vitamin D, amino acids (L-tryptophan, L-lysine, L-leucine, L-methionine)
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
Salad dressings, peanut butter, chocolate, margarine, frozen dessertsSoy lecithin, mono- and diglycerides, egg yolks, polysorbates, sorbitan monostearate
Stabilizers and Thickeners, Binders, TexturizersProduce uniform texture, improve "mouth-feel"Frozen desserts, dairy products, cakes, pudding and gelatin mixes, dressings, jams and jellies, saucesGelatin, pectin, guar gum, carrageenan, xanthan gum, whey
pH Control Agents and acidulantsControl acidity and alkalinity, prevent spoilageBeverages, frozen desserts, chocolate, low acid canned foods, baking powderLactic acid, citric acid, ammonium hydroxide, sodium carbonate
Leavening AgentsPromote rising of baked goodsBreads and other baked goodsBaking soda, monocalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate
Anti-caking agentsKeep powdered foods free-flowing, prevent moisture absorptionSalt, baking powder, confectioner's sugarCalcium silicate, iron ammonium citrate, silicon dioxide
HumectantsRetain moistureShredded coconut, marshmallows, soft candies, confectionsGlycerin, sorbitol
Yeast NutrientsPromote growth of yeastBreads and other baked goodsCalcium sulfate, ammonium phosphate
Dough Strengtheners and ConditionersProduce more stable doughBreads and other baked goodsAmmonium sulfate, azodicarbonamide, L-cysteine
Firming AgentsMaintain crispness and firmnessProcessed fruits and vegetablesCalcium chloride, calcium lactate
Enzyme PreparationsModify proteins, polysaccharides and fatsCheese, dairy products, meatEnzymes, lactase, papain, rennet, chymosin
GasesServe as propellant, aerate, or create carbonationOil cooking spray, whipped cream, carbonated beveragesCarbon dioxide, nitrous oxide

There is a page on the FDA's website that answers many of the labeling questions. If you have certain food sensitivities, allergies, or just questions, this page would be a good place to start. 

This post is part of a series to help shoppers buy the healthiest possible food. Here is some more information:

Buying The Healthiest Possible Food For Your Family: Series Starts Now

Exactly How To Buy Organic Food

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