Urban Survival 101 : the science of reading food labels

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We speak about label reading in this article in response to many queries we received after our last posts on toxics in cosmetic products, especially those sold for children. One mother went as far as to describe her children’s complete skin care regimen with brands used and asked me for a thorough audit to eliminate toxins. And the brands she mentioned were premium, with claims of safe, natural ingredients.

We usually do not write about food on the Krya blog, as we work on household and personal care products. However food choices play a fundamental role in many skin or hair related conditions that affect people. Apart from food taken internally, the external environment and personal care products used also affect health and well being. Therefore this post has 2 parts to it: the first part We post today, talks about reading food labels and the second part We will post on Monday, will talk about label reading in cosmetic products.

A vital skill in our world today is the science of reading product labels and interpreting them to suit your requirement. A local supermarket would contain more than 5000 products ( in stock keeping units) and your family would use most of the categories over the years. So reading food labels is a survival skill.

What a product chooses to declare or not declare gives you a fundamental insight about what the company is really about : both about the kind of products it would like to create and how transparent or ethical it would like to be to its consumers.

The Rapid food label reading program – (especially for parents of young children)

As soon as my daughter returns from school, she runs to the dining table to open her casserole for her welcome back home snack. She takes great pleasure in opening the casserole herself to examine the contents and looks forward to the treats inside. The snacks vary from idlies, to fruit filled whole wheat appams, and sometimes on a busy day a quick set of sourdough bread toasties with generous dollops of homemade peanut butter.

Most of the food she eats is homemade, fresh and using whole organic ingredients. The peanut butter she ate yesterday was made from four ingredients: organic heritage peanuts, whole unprocessed dark jaggery, organic cacao powder and cold pressed organic coconut oil.

14. Aztecs storing maize also invented peanut butter

The Aztecs are credited for giving the world peanut butter

The texture of the peanut butter I made was very very different from the processed peanut butter I have eaten in my youth. The store bought peanut butter was very smooth, even, creamy , extremely sweet and with a very long shelf life. In contrast, my home made peanut butter is not as creamy or even as store bought, as it has limited amounts of oil. Even with what I think are generous amounts of jaggery, homemade peanut butter is nowhere as close to how sweet a store bought peanut butter is. And its shelf life is notoriously short –even a slight amount of moisture in the jar can cause mould formation.

What makes this vital difference between store bought and home made products? Why is one so unhealthy vs. the other? What should we be reading / looking for in our food labels?

The basics of a food label:

Green, brown & red

The green dot tightly framed inside a square, displayed on product labels prominently and proudly conveying vegetarian, is a recent phenomenon that has gone viral. It now appears in curious places like toothpaste and soaps. By contrast, products containing egg and meat are represented by the brown dot. There is a common misconception that a red dot on the label indicates the presence of meat, although there is no standard set by the government involving a red dot.

These dots have been formally mandated under the Food Safety and Standard Regulations 2011, regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. ( www.FSSAI.gov.in) .These regulations specify strict and clear guidelines on the information that any food manufacturer is bound to declare on the product label. However, little progress has been made in helping consumers decode the vast tracts of information on the product labels, since the dawn of the dots.

Beyond the vegetarian mark, any food product label would have five categories of information that need decoding. These five categories are

  1. Allergy warning information
  2. Ingredient listing
  3. Food additives : colours , flavors, preservatives, stabilisers.
  4. Nutritional and calorific information
  5. Organic certification
  6. Product Claims

1. Allergy Warning Information

In recent years, certain common foods are thought of as  allergens. These are nuts, soy, gluten (a protein commonly found in Wheat) and milk. The food label should have a separate box with the information that “this product contains nuts, soy, wheat and milk”. What is rather interesting is the fine print on products that do not contain these allergens, which can be written in two ways. One is the rather vague warning “May contain traces of nuts, soy, wheat, milk”. This does not help a person with a known food allergy make a decision. The other variation of this is “made in a factory that also processes nut, soy, wheat and milk”. This means that despite the best efforts, allergens could be present in the product, usually because of common containers and machines used.

Example 1: If the muffin you are looking at contains a brown dot, it is usually made with egg. If a cake you are eyeing at your neighborhood bakery has a red dot, it probably contains gelatin (an ingredient made from the skin, bones and connective tissue of several domesticated animals like cows, chicken, pigs and fish).

2. Ingredient Listing

The law mandates that an ingredient list in food products should be in descending order of contents by weight or volume. This is really useful in decoding product claims. The regulation also stipulates that if a claim is made about an ingredient, for example, whole wheat, then the food label should also provide the actual percentage of whole wheat inside. So with these two pieces of information the consumer can decide for themselves how brown their bread really is.

Example 2: You buy a loaf of whole wheat bread which is all the rage today. The front label says “whole wheat bread. But you turn to the back and see that the ingredient list is as follows

  1. Flour
  2. Water
  3. Whole meal / whole wheat flour
  4. Oil
  5. Salt
  6. Preservatives, stabilizers etc

Whole wheat is only ingredient # 3 ,  means that flour ( or Maida) is the major ingredient.

5. a neighbourhood italian bread selling bread circa 15th century

A depiction of a 15th century neighborhood Italian bakery – breads made fresh with long rise and whole grains

The Maida madness
Maida today has rightfully connotation of junk food and is hidden on food labels behind names like “Flour”, “White flour” or “Refined Flour”. So in this case, your whole wheat bread is simply a regular Maida bread masquerading as the healthier version, with some amount of whole wheat thrown in. Maida finds its way into many “treat foods” we eat: Parathas, Pizzas, Puris, and the ubiquitous Kuthu Parotta or the Malabar Parotta we find in South India.

12. Maida parotta

The South Indian Parotta – made with super refined white flour / Maida

Commercial Maida is made from starchy white endosperm after removing the bran. It is finely milled. Originally yellow in colour, it is then bleached with azo di carbonamide, chlorine , benzoyl peroxide or other bleaches. Benzoyl peroxide is now banned in China & EU for food uses. Maida also contains trace amounts of alloxan, which is the by-product of the chemical process of making it soft and white. In lab tests on rats, large amounts of alloxan were found to destroy beta cells in the pancreas causing diabetes mellitus.

  1. Food additives: Colours , flavors, Preservatives, Stabilizers etc.

The next part of Label reading is usually found towards the end of the ingredient list where words such as “ stabilizer “ , “nature – identical  food color” “ acidity-regulator” with an E-number such as “E-621” in brackets make their appearance.  These are chemicals that are permitted for use in food products and form a shockingly large range. The E-number specifically is an international labeling system that originated in Europe (hence E) which makes it easy to identify these chemical additives by anyone in the world. For example E-621 stands for the flavor enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

The range of legally permitted chemicals is bewildering and their number quite shocking. It raises the question, am I eating real food or debris from a lab explosion? These chemicals with the E-numbers have come under serious scrutiny in recent times as potentially harmful for health. The debate, though not yet conclusive, serves as a reminder not to gloss over the E-numbers on any food label.

6. Caramel colouring - found in fake whole wheta bread and colas

Caramel colouring: found in cola drinks. Also used to colour white refined bread and pass it off as the healthier “Whole wheat” version

How much lemon is really there in Citric Acid?

Commercial citric acid is a very common preservative used in food. Citric acid, originally derived from the citrus family of fruits has a healthy connotation. Citric acid from fresh lemon juice is a natural preservative.  We think we are eating a substance extracted from lemons or oranges, which doesn’t sound too unhealthy.

However commercial citric acid is made by feeding cheap sugar solutions to cultures of Aspergillus Niger fungus. After the mould is filtered out, it is precipitated with calcium hydroxide to get calcium citrate. This is then treated with Sulphuric acid to finally recreate citric acid.

So a simple ingredient like citric acid on a food label could have a long chain of unwholesome events behind it. If you are really interested in eating wholesome food, it is worth your effort to know these ingredients for what they really are.

Example 3: I recently bought a brand of soy sauce to be used sparingly on Asian stir fries. I found 3 brands of soy sauce available on the shelf. The sauce which I finally picked up had this written on the label.

Water, wheat, soy bean paste, salt, sugar and sodium benzoate. No artificial colours. Permitted food flavors added. While sodium benzoate was clearly listed as a preservative, the added flavors used were not identified.

I must add that this label listing was only for the premium version of this product. The non premium version had acidity regulators, MSG, and a smaller percentage of soy bean extract in the sauce.

While I picked up what my label reading told me was the least offensive soy sauce, this still does not compare to the real thing. Commercial soy sauce is made using a quick fermentation process. The artisanal, home fermented version of Soy sauce made in traditional homes across Asian countries can take upto a year to ferment and mature fully before it is used. This fermentation is done in special wooden casks and these are left sealed to ferment slowly in the sun.

 

4. traditional korean sauce fermenting in earthen jars

Traditional Korean soy sauce fermented in earthen jars

Prepared this way, the soy sauce is no longer an additive or a taste enhancer – it is real food.

  1. Nutritional and Calorific Information

Every food product label must specify nutritional information per 100 gm or 100 ml serving equivalent. The chart must cover

a)      Energy value in Calories

b)      Amounts of protein, carbohydrates (specific quantity of sugar) and fat in grams or ml

c)       The amount of any other nutrient for which a health claim is made

The WHO reference guideline of approximately 2000 Calories per day for an adult gives real perspective to the amount of Calories present in any processed food item. The guideline number of 2000 is a very narrow definition that does not talk about the source of the Calories. It is now possible to get 2000 Calories per day just from a few colas and a bag of chips, which leads to the whole debate on “empty Calories”.

Example 4:  I looked at this food label which is a health drink served to children. While the drink is marketed as a vitamin fortified balanced drink for children, a quick scan of the nutritional information reveals that 100 g of this health drink contains 47.6 grams of sugars. The sugar here acts like a  preservative and also makes the drink irresistible to children

The first ingredient listed in this products label is skimmed cow’s milk. Other ingredients are maltodextrin, oil and sucrose. You might think this product is not too bad for your kids.  Only a close reading of the nutritional information gives you the complete picture.

Even though skimmed milk has been listed (presumably to give you a sense of how healthy and fat free the product is), the combination of sucrose and lactose sugar from the milk adds up to nearly 50% of the product. Just the from the point of view of sugars , this product appears to be a highly sweetened beverage. Here we are not even getting into the perils of the other ingredients like maltodextrin on the list.

  1. Organic Certification

Unless otherwise mentioned, every food product contains ingredients that were grown with the help of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The standards for organic production in India are governed by the APEDA (www.apeda.gov.in).  When a product carries this label, it means that at least 95% of the products by weight are of certifiable organic origin.

However everything organic is not necessarily good (although you may be excused for believing it is). The same permitted food colours, and preservatives can be used in processed organic food products. You can also have super refined organic food products.

 Example 5: Several popular organic brands organic maida – which is super refined, stripped of nutrition white flour. While the source of the wheat is organic, this food is certainly not wholesome or nutritious. Also available today are junk foods like chips made from organic potatoes. So while organic is great, organic junk food is not.

 6. Product Claims

This last category of food label information is also the toughest one to decode. The food safety standards issue only broad ethical guidelines that a nutritional or health claim of a product should not be false or misleading. Therefore food manufacturers are free to advertise any claim for the product that they are confident of defending under the law.

Example 6: Any regular brand of orange juice from the supermarket would contain the following claims prominently on the label, “No preservatives, No added sugar, No added colors”, all on a lush background of images of beautiful oranges. Now, all the above claims are true but do not represent the true picture.

Elsewhere on the label, away from all the action, you would find two phrases that need deeper investigation. Firstly, all these juices are actually not fresh but “reconstituted orange juice”.

What is reconstituted fruit juice?

To preserve seasonal easy to spoil food products like fruit juice, especially when the harvest is extremely bountiful, a common method followed by large food companies is to separate the constituents of natural fruit juice.

This is also done because as farmers would attest, fruits do not ripen all at once – different fruits even on the same tree ripen at different times. However picking, sorting and grading is done all at once, to save time and effort. In this scenario, you will get a variety of both ripe and unripe fruits which cannot be juiced and sold together.

So here, each fruit is juiced and separated into its individual components. The pulp is separated from the juice and processed into even sized and shaped gummy, particles which have the texture of cooked tapioca pearls. The liquid is spray dried to get a powder. In this process, the volatile vitamins like Vitamin C are lost and of course the natural taste and flavor of the fruit.

When the juice is “manufactured”, the pulp and the spray dried powder are blended together with added sugar, added “nature identical” colour, “nature identical flavor”, acidity regulators to keep the pH at a certain level to ensure long shelf life and preservatives.

Reconstitution is the method to ensure orange juice availability throughout the year, anywhere in the world. This reconstituted juice can at best be described as a watery, over sweet imitation of natural fruit juice.

1. Mexico_City_merchant_with_his_freshly_squeezed_orange_juice_March_2010

Freshly squeezed orange juice sold by a Mexican vendor – no funny business or added pulp!

Why is my quick delivery pizza giving me a headache?

Food flavoring is a multi-billion dollar industry and enters our bodies in many hidden ways. The toppings used by most pizza companies, owe their taste to food flavors. Central processing of vegetables means that the tomato you eat on your topping could have been cut more than a week ago and would have been frozen until you dialed in and ordered your pizza. In this time, the delicate aroma and natural flavor of the tomato would have been lost. So a nature identical flavor is added back to the tomato before it is baked. This usually explains why a home-made pizza does not have the weirdly intensive flavors and tastes a store bought pizza does. And why you usually have no adverse reactions (headaches, bloating) to the home made pizza.

Conclusion

An observant reader may conclude that through this article we are making a case to avoid mass produced, processed ready to eat foods as much as possible.

In our food culture, ready to eat products do exist. Traditionally we have utilized the bounty of nature and pickled, jellied, or dehydrated fruits and vegetables when in season. A recent update on facebook group had a gentleman describing the brining technique to be used to preserve Indian gooseberries or amla which are now in season. The stability of Vitamin C in the Indian gooseberry is well known. Unlike other sources of vitamin C like other citrus fruits, a dried or pickled Indian gooseberry retains a large amount of its Vitamin C which is heat resistant.

So a home made Amla pickle displays stellar good sense. Similarly our food preservation techniques are also driven by a need to store and use fruits and vegetables  for lean seasons like Winter when a large selection of fresh produce is not readily available.

Pickling is a part of food cultures across the world. Pickling across different countries utilises abundant fresh produce, preserves vital nutrients and introduces good probiotics into the body.

10. Traditional korean kimchi

Kimchi – Korean fermented and pickled vegetables

In our home, our preservation and shelf life extension techniques are limited to the use of oil, salt, vinegar and sugar, a gentle heating or cooking process, and a culture that reveres the purity or sanctity of these preserved foods. Traditional homes were always built with an ante room with restricted entry to keep these preserved foods from spoiling.

7. traditional pickled lemons

Traditional pickled lemons

These were the only ready to eat foods in a traditional home. Homes across India added to this repertoire “ready to fry” food that consisted of salted and lentil / cereal cooked vegetables that were used to make papads, vadams and salted vegetables like vathals. These were fried and added back to dals or sambhars to enhance taste and to introduce a vegetable which was not seasonally available.

These foods constituted a small portion of our plate. They were used as seasoners or taste enhancers and no one would dream of eating a lunch solely comprising of pickles or vathals.

Yet this very same sensible, thrifty food culture has now given way to a time when a lot of what we eat has been made with short cut techniques, using high amounts of salts and sugar, and with the addition of several suspect chemically derived ingredients. In a broad sense, many of us are eating a plate of pickles every day for lunch or dinner!

We hope that a course in basic label reading, which we have outlined, will help you make better eating choices for you and your family.

But we fall back to the words of Michael Pollan as we conclude this article on food products and their labeling.

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.  Don’t eat anything that is incapable of rotting”.

This article is a part of Krya’s series on toxics in household and personal care products. Through this series, we hope to inform, educate and inspire you to look around your home and detox it and yourself from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today. The natural world is full of safe, environmentally sustainable, cruelty free options to care for yourself and your home, and our series will try to present atleast a small part of this exciting world to you. 

If you would like to explore our series further, here’s what We’ve written before this piece:

  1. An introduction to the series
  2. Common carcinogens implicated in breast cancer found in your home
  3. Is it a conspiracy? A pre-planned genetic supremacy race? Or simply misinformation? Some reasons behind common toxics & why they continue to be used
  4. Are we putting our children at risk by using these products on them? Here are 3 toxins that plague children through the products we use on them.
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