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Understanding ingredients lists

Today’s consumers do pay attention to what they eat and the ingredients list has become the second most important attribute they look at when buying food, after price [1]. In the EU, 62% of consumers read the back of pack information and of those, 77% base their decision making on the information in the ingredients list [2].

Any prepacked food or drink that has two or more components (including any additives) must include a list of all the ingredients preceded by a heading that includes the word ‘ingredients’. As we’ve seen, the items must be listed in descending order of weight, with the main ingredient first. (Some food products are exempt, such as unprocessed fruit and vegetables, carbonated water, vinegar, cheese, butter, milk, cream and alcoholic drinks [3].) As well as this, there is an additional regulation, the QUID (Quantitative Ingredient Declaration), that requires the quantity of certain ingredients to be indicated as a percentage. This applies to an ingredient if it is:

  • highlighted on the label in any way, through pictures, graphics, or words (for example, ‘extra cheese’)

  • mentioned in the name of the food product (for example, ‘cheese and onion pasty’)

  • normally associated with the name by consumers (for example, the meat in a ‘shepherds pie’ or the fruit in a summer pudding).[3]

This percentage can be displayed alongside the name of the food or in the ingredients list.

section from a strawberry and banana smoothie label displaying ingredients list which contains percentages of strawberries, pineapple juice and banana puree

These regulations are all very well, but what about the names of ingredients that we don’t understand? Sometimes scientific and technical descriptions of ingredients are unfamiliar to consumers and their use can lead to distrust [4]. For instance, ascorbic acid and thiamine hydrochloride are the chemical names for vitamin C and vitamin B1 but may be misunderstood by consumers [5]. Let’s take a closer look at chemical names.

Chemical names

Everything around us is made of chemicals. Nutrients, such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats and fibre, vitamins and minerals are all made of chemicals that occur naturally. The food industry makes use of naturally occurring chemicals to enhance various properties of the products we buy.

  • Food flavourings may be added to improve taste and aroma.

  • Food enzymes are natural proteins used in some manufacturing processes to improve baking quality, dough, yields and fermentation [7].

  • Food supplements are vitamins and minerals added to foods specifically to correct nutritional deficiencies) [8].

Food additives are substances added to food to perform a certain technological function. Some additives have been in use for centuries for preservation, such as salt in dried fish or meats, sugar in jam or sulphur dioxide in wine. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) assess the safety on all these substances before they are authorised to be used in food [9] and they are only approved if:

  • tests have shown no harmful or detrimental effects in humans

  • their use is justified

  • information to consumers is not distorted [5, 10].

Food additives can be derived from plants, animals, or minerals or they can be synthetic. For example, lemons contain a natural antioxidant called ascorbic acid also known as vitamin C. This antioxidant allows to preserve taste and colour and allows the food to stay edible for longer for example in fruit juice, jam or canned vegetables. Since it’s used in large quantities by food manufacturers, the component must be synthetized from a lemon or from a lab, but it’s the same molecule.

You can read more about the safety standards used in the EU in the links listed under ‘See Also’ at the end of this article.

Because their chemical names are long and complex, additives tend to be identified on ingredients lists by their E numbers. Having an E number also guarantees that that particular chemical is authorised and safe to use in food. Additives perform various functions and are grouped according to their purpose:

  • Colours are used for boosting or re-establishing colour in foods [10].

  • Preservatives are used to guarantee quality and extend shelf-life. They control contamination and prevent decomposition caused by bacteria, fungi, mould, and yeast [10].

  • Antioxidants are used to prevent naturally occurring oxidation reactions such as those that cause food to rot or fade in colour. They therefore help to extend shelf-life and quality [5, 10].

  • Sweeteners are used as an alternative to sugar for reducing the calories in certain foods [7]. Overconsumption of sugar has been linked with obesity and dental cavities, so it’s best to enjoy sugar in moderation, however sugar can come under lots of different names on an ingredients list (take a look at ‘How to spot sugar on an ingredient list’ in the ‘See Also’ section).

As for sweeteners, there have been concerns that the use of sweeteners might cause sweetness habituation; increased cravings for sweetened products, and long-term metabolic health effects including impacts on genes through parental habits before conception; may increase food intake and result in weight gain. However, these studies are not providing clear answers due to limited data available. Although there have been concerns raised about their safety, current results indicate that they would have to be consumed in unfeasible amounts before they became harmful [12,13,14]. According to EU law, sweeteners (like other food additives) must be authorised before use and continuously re-evaluated for their safety. Moreover, sweeteners used by food manufacturers are usually subject to certain conditions of use (the law specifies to which foods authorised and approved sweeteners may be added, and at what quantities).

  • Emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners are used to help mix ingredients or thicken products [5]. For example, emulsifiers help oil and water to mix, thickeners such as starch or gum based give sauces and soups the desired consistency. Guar gum is added to various dairy products such as low-fat yoghurt as a fat replacer.[11].

To look up specific E numbers, here’s a list of the UK Government’s list of EU approved additives.

A note on palm oil

The use of palm oil in food has been criticised because vast plantations have led to deforestation, land grabs and environmental degradation [15]. The oil is used in more than 50% of all food products and is found in many of the items we consume and use daily, such as biscuits and breakfast cereals as well as cleaning products and body lotions [16]. The problems associated with palm oil are not easily resolved (you can find out more in the EIT Food course ‘Engaging with controversies in the food system: What is palm oil and why is it so useful?’) but the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 to promote the production and use of sustainable palm oil. As from the start of 2019, 19% of palm oil globally is certified by the RSPO [19].

Since 2011 it’s been mandatory in the EU to include palm oil on ingredients lists but it’s not always easily identified because it has various alternative names. The main four groups of names it might appear as are ‘Palm _ ‘, ‘Stear_’, ‘Laur_’ and ‘Glyc_’ [17] [18]. There’s a complete list of names at the orangutan alliance website.

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Understanding Food Labels

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