Thursday, October 26, 2006

Demystifying Food Labels

In this age of increased awareness and information explosion – we want to know everything about anything – and so it is with the food we buy/eat.

It’s good to know that food labeling laws are becoming stricter and packaged food manufacturers now must declare everything (well, almost everything) that they add to the food.

When I examined the food labels of the products that were lying around at home, I noticed that, in addition to the obvious ingredients that were mentioned by name, there were also some numbers like “E330”, “211”, etc. that were mentioned.

I was very curious as to what these numbers meant – and it really started bothering me a lot – so I decided to dig deeper and find out a little more about what we are eating.

Thanks to these few days of Diwali, I finally got that time – so, while most people were out visiting others and exchanging sweets, etc. (loaded with these very additives!!), I set about trying to demystify our food labels… and here’s what I found out (thanks to Google).

1. Packaged food contains certain additives that make it necessary for manufacturers to actually “package” the product. These are necessary and beneficial (to stop food decay, prevent bacteria formation, etc.) and are required for increasing shelf-life and maintaining product consistency.
2. Some of these are just for “cosmetic” appeal. Here’s where the “added flavours and colours” comes in.
3. There is an “approved” list of “permitted” additives & colours, put out by various governments. In India we have our own Food & Drug Administration (FDA) authority and abroad, the USFDA lays down guidelines.
4. Labels are allowed to refer to these additives by just referring to their serial numbers.

Ok, so far so good … but, here’s the clincher … (you knew there was one, didn’t you?)

Though these are “approved” – which means they are safe for consumption in the specified amounts, no where is it mentioned that these additives have NO SIDE EFFECTS, when consumed in larger quantities – or when combined with other “permitted” additives!!

So, if you’re having, say, a Cola with Salted Wafers – Boy, are you in trouble!!! Which means, even these so-called “permitted” additives/colours can cause havoc to our health!

And, yes, I also found out what those numbers meant – and was not very happy about it!!

So it would mean that now we REALLY know what we’re eating, right? WRONG!

Here are a few of the products that kids love to eat (and amongst other things, these are the additives that are present in these products)…

Product A - Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate, Ammonium Hydrogen Carbonate, Lecithins, Tertiary Butylhydroquinone, Caramel I-Plain, Ponceau 4R.

Product B - Calcium Carbonate (Chalk), Citric Acid, Caramel IV-Ammonia Sulphite Process, Disodium 5'-Guanylate and Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate.

Product C - Pectins, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Sodium Metabisulphite, Azorubine/Carmoisine, Brilliant Blue FCF.

Could you guess which products are these? ….. No? OK, here are the answers …

Product A = Britannia Treat Bourbon Cream Biscuit
Product B = Maggi 2 Minute Noodles
Product C = Kissan Mixed Fruit Jam

I bet you’re surprised! Yeah, this is the stuff we are feeding our kids!!

The permitted Food Additive numbers are grouped together based on their “properties” and what they are used for. Here is the full classification:

100-199 = Colours
200-299 = Preservatives and Food Acids
300-399 = Antioxidants, Mineral Salts and Food Acids
400-499 = Emulsifiers, Humectants, Vegetable Gums & Processing Aids
500-599 = Anti Caking Agents, Firming Agents, Stabilisers & Processing Aids
600-899 = Flavour Enhancers
900-1201 = Sweetening Agents, Bleaching Agents, Propellants, Antifoaming Agents
1400-1450 = Thickeners
1505-1521 = Sequestrants and Solvents

The media has ensured that we are well aware of the usual suspects: Aspartame and Saccharin (Sugar substitutes), MSG (Mono Sodium Glutamate), BVO (Brominated Vegetable Oil) and, more recently, the pesticide content in Soft Drinks.

Now here is a list I compiled from my kitchen – which has everyday products like Biscuit, Soup, Pasta, Noodles, Jam, Juice, Crush, Colas, Soda! (The ones in BOLD are best avoided – especially by young children and those suffering from Asthma)
122 = Azorubine / Carmoisine
124 = Ponceau 4R
127 = Erythrosine
133 = Brilliant blue FCF

150 = Caramel I-plain
150c = Caramel III – ammonia process
150d = Caramel IV-ammonia sulphite process
160a = Carotenes
160b = Annatto extracts
170(i) = Calcium carbonate
211 = Sodium benzoate
223 = Sodium metabisulphite
260 = Acetic acid, glacial
300 = Ascorbic acid (L)
319 = Tertiary butylhydroquinone
322 = Lecithins
327 = Calcium lactate
330 = Citric acid
331 = Sodium citrates
338 = Orthophosphoric acid
341(i) = Monocalcium orthophosphate
415 = Xanthan Gum
440(i) = Pectins
471 = Mono-and di-glycerides of fatty acids
481(i) = Sodium stearoyl lactylates
500 = Sodium carbonates
500(ii) = Sodium hydrogen carbonate
503(ii) = Ammonium hydrogen carbonate
509 = Calcium chloride (Chalk)
627 = Disodium 5'-guanylate
631 = Disodium 5'-inosinate
1101(i) = Protease
1422 = Acetylated distarch adipate

Well, now that you are better informed, please rummage through your kitchen cabinet and fridge and decode what you’re eating … and what you're feeding your loved ones !!!

Seems like the best thing to do is stick to as many natural and fresh foods, as is possible.

Well ... and that's how I feel ...


pitfinder said...

Dude, I'm eating Soy Lethicin, Sodium and Potassium Coarbonate, Dextrose, Calcium Carbonate, Pectin, Delactosed Whey, Mono nad Diglycerides, Sodium Bicarmbonate, Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Benzoate, Sulfur Dioxide, and four different artificial dyes - right now.
If you start worrying about all the stuff they put in food these days, you're going to get sick from thinking about it. :-)

Kidding aside, it's good that you're concerned, just don't let it eat you up worrying.


Anonymous said...

sandeep, great stuff! -- sai