How to read a food label

Avoid these 6 harmful food additives

Confused by all the odd-sounding ingredient names and numbers on food labels?

You’re right to be.

Reading a food label and trying to understand what the ingredients are leaves many shoppers bewildered.

From added colours and preservatives to flavour enhancers and thickeners, supermarket shelves are jam-packed with additive-laden food products. Even though they may appear harmless, additives are toxic substances you don’t want to be putting in your body.

Discover how to read a food label and look out for food additives. Learn about the different types of food additives and six of the most harmful food additives you should definitely avoid. Stop the confusion and buy your food with confidence.

Types of food additives

Food additives are used in products as:

  • Colourings to make food look more appealing. An example of this is margarine which is normally a white colour but has yellow added to it to make it more appetising.
  • Thickeners and gelling agents to thicken ingredients and make them less watery such as in soups and desserts.
  • Emulsifiers and stabilisers to help blend ingredients together and smooth the texture of the food.
  • Flavour enhancers to improve the overall taste of the food.
  • Preservatives to enhance their shelf life and prevent the food from going rancid.
  • Sweeteners to make foods taste better and appear “low sugar”.

How to understand food labels

Being able to read and understand a food label is essential if you want to know exactly what you’re eating. Not only can you find out how many hidden sugars it contains, you’ll also be able to decipher if it has any food additives.

Here’s how to look out for food additives when reading a label:

  • Strange sounding ingredients. If an ingredient has an obscure name or uses acronyms such as BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), you can guarantee it is some kind of additive.
  • E-numbers are additives. Manufacturers either use the name of the additive or the numerical ID to display the additive on a label, such as E124 (ponceau 4R – a red food colouring). “E” stands for Europe and the codes are used to classify food additives used within the European Union. If you’re looking at a label outside of the EU, such as in Australia, additives will be displayed as a number e.g. 220.
  • Misleading nutritional claims. Don’t let amazing sounding nutritional claims persuade you to buy a product if you know it contains harmful food additives. Food manufacturers use an array of labelling tricks to convince shoppers to but their products. Make sure you read the label before believing claims such as “healthy alternative”, “light”, “natural” or “farm fresh”.

Food additives to avoid

It’s best to avoid foods with additives wherever possible and only eat foods in their natural state. If it can sit on a shelf for an extended period of time, chances are it contains little in the way of nutrition.

Some food additives are worse than others. Here’s a list of the ones to definitely avoid:

  • 120: Cochineal (also called carmine and carminic acid) is used as a red food colouring in sausages, yoghurts, crab sticks, juices and pink cakes. It’s been linked to respiratory conditions and allergic reactions.
  • 160b: Annatto extract is a yellow-orange colour additive used in yoghurts, cheese, ice cream, cereals and snack foods. It may cause irritability, headaches, hives and sleep issues.
  • 220: Sulphur dioxide is a preservative commonly added to foods and drinks such as wine, cider, pickled vegetables, dried fruit, sausages and juices. It destroys vitamin B1 and may cause asthma, anaphylaxis, nausea and gut issues.
  • 320: Butylated hydroxyanisole. This is very toxic and has been linked to immune, hormonal, respiratory and skin-related conditions. It is added to sausages, deli meat, crisps, baked goods, cereals, butter, beer and chewing gum.
  • 407: Carrageenanis often used as a thickener in products such as whipping cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, yoghurts, milk alternatives (soy, almond, coconut), soy desserts, deli meats, packaged sliced meat, canned soup and pizzas. It’s been known to cause gastrointestinal inflammation and bowel disease.
  • 621: Monosodium L-glutamate (MSG) is added to packaged products and takeaway food as a flavour enhancer. MSG has been known to cause heart conditions, numbness/ tingling and depression. Some foods which contain MSG are crisps, flavoured nuts, instant noodles, tinned soup, frozen meals, seasoning blends, Chinese food, deli meats, salad dressings and sauces.

Food additives and hyperactivity

The following additives have been linked to hyperactivity and behavioural issues in children. They are used as colourings in sweets, crisps, ice cream, soft drinks, jams, cereals, sauces and soups.

  • E102 (tartrazine) – lemon yellow colour
  • E104 (quinoline yellow WS) – greenish-yellow colour
  • E110 (sunset yellow FCF) – orange colour
  • E122 (azorubine, carmoisine or food red 3) – red-maroon colour
  • E124 (ponceau 4R) – strawberry red colour
  • E129 (allura red) – dark red colour

Know what’s in your food

Supermarket shelves are filled with food laden with harmful food additives which have been known to cause problems in the body. Packaged products with long shelf-lives and bright colours will most certainly contain additives. The only way to decipher what the ingredients are in the food you’re eating is to read the label so you can buy with peace of mind.

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