Ingredient detective: do you know what you’re eating?

In a world of increasing consumer awareness many people are still not aware of what they are ingesting, as food and product label claims such as ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘non-toxic’ are almost completely unregulated. With the guidance of Faithful to Nature, one of the most recognised organic online shops in South Africa, Alina Hardcatle learns about which food additives to avoid and how to become an ingredient detective.

TOPIC, a consumer-led organisation that tests the authenticity of natural and organic products says: “Mislabelling and food fraud are rife. It is estimated that more than a third of products on our shelves are falsely labelled. For most small retailers, testing products is not an option because they don’t have the resources.”

 Steps to becoming an ingredient detective 

 Faithful to Nature advises that when reading an ingredient label, start by dividing the ingredients list into thirds. The top third will contain more or less than 90%-95% of the ingredients in the product; the middle third will contain between 5%-8% of the ingredients and the bottom third will have about one to three percent of the ingredients. The list of harmful additives and preservatives are endless, and the tongue twisting names certainly don’t help.

“Natural ingredients need to stand out on the ingredient list,” adds entrepreneur and sustainability innovator, Robyn Smith of Faithful to Nature. “If a product is really as natural as its label claims, then the ingredients should be easily recognisable and listed up high. If they are not, then the warning bells should start to ring.”

So, it’s important to use a bit of logic and just have a general idea of common synthetic “nasty” non-organic products.

Products most likely to contain harmful additives or preservatives

“Processed foods are the playground of harmful additives and preservatives. Especially those that are artificially coloured,” says Smith.

She also makes us aware that one of the most common routes that children and adults ingest these harmful additives is through cereals. Here’s a list of the top food additives to watch out for:

Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame (E951), Acesulfame (E950) and Saccharin and its Na, K & Ca salts (E954). These can be found in diet or sugar-free beverages, sugar-free chewing gum, cereals, mixers, mints, sweeteners and more.

Food colorants: Sunset Yellow, Tartrazine (E102); Amaranth (E123); F D & C Yellow 6 (E110); FCF Orange Yellow S; and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG or E621) which can be found in cheese, sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages and more.

Nitrates (E249, E250, E251, and E252): Nitrates are traditionally used in cured meat products. This chemical is a colour fixer that makes old meats appear fresh.

BHA and BHT (E320): These two products keep food from changing colour and flavour; or from becoming rancid. They are typically found in margarine and spreads, salad dressings and nuts.

Other harmful preservatives to watch out for:

  • Benzoic Acid & Sodium Benzoate
  • Stannous Chloride (tin or E512)
  • Sulphur Dioxide & Sulphites (E220, E221, E226)

Harmful effects of artificial additives and preservatives

Smith informs us that harmful additives and preservatives can result in food intolerances and allergies. Reactions can sometimes be immediate and result in the following:

  • Congestions
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach ache

Or they can have a more subtle but have longer term consequences such as:

  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Cancer

How to avoid harmful additives and be economical

When enquiring about the costs of purchasing foods that don’t contain harmful preservatives, Smith says for those who wish to maintain a “fast food” lifestyle but eat healthier foods, it’s likely that they will expect to pay a premium cost for foods that are free of harmful additives and preservatives.

However, if you are willing to make a few lifestyle changes, it does not necessarily need to be a more expensive move to eat healthier food. Once you’ve mastered the art of being an ingredient detective, you then need to become a little bit more organised so that you can make your food with real ingredients instead of relying on store-bought artificial substitutes.

So where can you find these goods? Smith says: “The first prize is to find a farmers market close by but you can also get your whole food ingredients from most [ethical] retailers in South Africa.”

Always opt for the fresh produce. TOPIC’s spokesperson, Peter Becker says: “Fresh produce usually contains no preservatives, as opposed to pre-prepared packaged meals which are designed to have a longer shelf life. So in this case, the fresh produce would be less expensive and contain no preservatives, although it may take more time to prepare.”

You can also save costs by pre-preparing your food and freezing it when you can.

Final thoughts

Smith concludes: “It just takes a bit of meal planning to remove you and your family’s reliance on “artificial food.”

Faithful to Nature has compiled a list of ingredients that one should avoid, as well as those ingredients that you can rest easy about (available in the attachment below).

For more information about Faithful to Nature, click here.

For information about TOPIC, click here.

To find a dietitian in your area, click here.