Decoding food labels

by BabyYumYum
mom reading food labels at the store
Reading Time: 5 minutes

We constantly strive to make the best choices for our children, especially when it comes to what they eat and the medications they might need. With an overwhelming array of food products and medicines on the market, each boasting an extensive list of ingredients, how do we know what's truly good for our kids? Let's dive into the world of labels, uncovering what's hidden in our food and meds, and learn how to shop smarter and healthier. By BYY’s expert Dietician, Kath Megaw & Nikki Temkin

Decoding labels can feel like navigating a maze, but it’s a crucial skill in our quest to protect and promote our children’s health. The key is to be vigilant about certain ingredients, particularly preservatives, colourants, flavourants and artificial sweeteners, which often lurk unnoticed in pre-packaged and processed foods and medications.

Interestingly, regulations regarding food additives can vary significantly from one country to another. For instance, certain substances banned in the USA might still be permitted in other countries, including South Africa. This discrepancy underscores the importance of being informed and proactive consumers, especially when it comes to our children’s health.

Check out the impact food has on children’s teeth

Some ingredients to watch out for:

      • Phosphates and sulphites (frequently found in processed foods mostly found in pre-cooked food like deli meats and poultry. have been linked to adverse health effects, including increasing symptoms of hyperactivity and impulse regulation and the potential risk of colon cancer

      • MSG(Monosodium Glutamate), a flavour enhancer, can affect brain chemistry, posing risks especially for developing children and those with ADHD. It is also highly addictive which is why when you’re eating that bag of crisps, you can’t stop!

      • Hydrogenated oil is a type of fat that food manufacturers use to keep foods fresher for longer. Hydrogenation is a process where manufacturers add hydrogen to a liquid fat, such as vegetable oil, to turn it into a solid fat at room temperature. Palm oil, Canola oil and other seed oils are also highly inflammatory and thought to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

      • Colourings  like tartrazine (a common dye) is known to cause allergic reactions as well as exacerbate and cause asthma and skin rashes. They make food look more appealing but are made of chemicals. Another 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 thicken ingredients and make them less watery such in soups and desserts.

      • Emulsifiers and stabilisers help blend ingredients together and smooth the texture of the food.

      • Flavour enhancers  (flavourants that are unnatural) improve the overall taste of the food but can be toxic.

      • Preservatives enhance shelf life and prevent the food from going rancid but are not good for you.
      • TBHQ is a byproduct of the petroleum industry and used as a preservative in foods like instant noodles and crisps. 

    Read this for more details on ingredients to watch for in food labels

    Sweet deceit

    The food industry’s strategy to manipulate our palates and foster a preference for sweeter flavours has far-reaching implications for our health, contributing to the rising incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders

    One of the most insidious additives is sugar, often disguised under various names (honey, dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose, sucrose) and found in surprisingly high amounts even in products not traditionally considered sweet, like tomato sauce. In fact, in most tomato sauce, has as much sugar in it as tomatoes.  Corn syrup, made of starch, is also used to sweeten food and is exceptionally bad for health.

    Cereals like Rice Crispies, Cocoa Pops and Fruit Loops, and even cereals that propose to be healthy like Kellogg’s Special K  and most muesli and granola are examples of breakfasts that contain huge amounts of sugar. When your child starts the day with one of these, you’re setting them up for blood sugar spikes, dysregulation and sugar addiction.

    You may think that using artificial sweeteners (Acesulfame K, Aspartame, Saccharine) will be better for you but that’s just not true (in fact it’s been shown that they don’t even really help weight loss). In fact, research shows that over time they may lead to digestive issues and perhaps even cancer as well as other ailments. Using Xylitol is a safer option but it can cause digestive complaints in large amounts.

    Check out: Constipation in children

    Managing meds

    In terms of medications, the same caution applies. While we trust these products to be safe, it’s essential to question and understand the necessity of every ingredient, particularly for those that are consumed regularly.

    The cumulative effect of trace amounts of potentially harmful additives, over time, can indeed affect the gut, digestive system and overall health negatively.

    Read: How can palm oil in formula affect your baby

    food labels

    The way forward

    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.

    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”.

      Visit: Encourage a healthy relationship with food

      But how do we shop better? First, prioritise whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats should form the bulk of our grocery lists. When purchasing processed items, adopt the habit of reading labels carefully. Look for products with short ingredient lists, containing items that are recognisable and pronounceable. Avoid products with a high content of additives like preservatives, artificial colours, and sweeteners.

      Additionally, be mindful of the marketing tactics used by food manufacturers. Terms like “all natural” or “healthy” can be misleading and are not always regulated. Instead, focus on the nutritional facts and ingredient list. Opting for organic products can also reduce exposure to certain harmful chemicals, although it’s not always feasible for everyone.

      While achieving perfection in our diets is unrealistic, becoming more aware of what’s in pre-packaged and processed foods and by extension, in our medicines, is a step in the right direction. Encouragingly, a growing movement towards clean eating and transparency in labelling is making it easier for parents to make informed choices. 

      Finally, while we may not be able to shield our children from every harmful substance, by learning to decode labels and making more conscious choices, we can significantly impact their health and well-being. Let’s commit to being vigilant, informed shoppers, not just for our sake but for the health of our children. After all, in a world where food and medicine are more complex than ever, knowledge truly is power.

      Also read: The risk of fad diets for your teens

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