Something about food labels

Reading a food label

We all know the feeling: we are reading the ingredient list of a food product and we read a lot of E101, E127, E199. And we all ask ourselves: “What are all these ingredients?!”

In this article I will explain how to read a food label and what all these strange code mean.

Food labels contain information regarding the nutritional value and the ingredients of the food.

As far as the nutritional value is concerned, food labels state the calories, fats (total and saturated), carbohydrates, proteins and sodium content.

As far as the ingredients are concerned, they are listed accordingly to their abundance. The most abundant ingredient is the first of the list, the least abundant is the last. At the bottom of the list we can find all the food additives starting with the “E” letter. “E” stands for Europe and all these additives have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and can be used within the European Union (EU) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

Classification of food additives

The additives can be classified as:

  • colours (E100 – E199)
  • preservatives (E200 – E299)
  • antioxidants and acidity regulators (E300 – E399)
  • thickeners, stabilisers and emulsifiers (E400 – E499)
  • anti-caking agents (E500 – E599)
  • flavour enhancer (E600 – E699)
  • antibiotics (E700 – E799)
  • sweeteners (E900 – E999)
  • others (E1000 – E1599)

Among sweeteners I can cite aspartame (E951) and sucralose (E955). Both are low-calories sugar substitutes used in many foods and beverages. Aspartame is around 200 times as sweet as sucrose, while sucralose around 300-1000 times. This means that in order to achieve the same sweet taste of sucrose, we need to add very little quantities of aspartame and sucralose.

E101 is a color additive used to enhance the red color. What is interesting is that E101 is riboflavin, also known as vitamin B2. I particularly love this example because it allows me to introduce the concepts of “natural” and “artificial”.

Natural vs. artificial

Usually we associate the concepts “natural” and “healthy”, as well as “artificial”, “chemical” and “unhealthy”.

Well, this is just wrong. All natural molecules are chemical ones just because the nature is based on chemistry. Citric acid (E330) is derived from citric fruit(s) and it is used as a preservative and as a flavour enhancer.

“All things are poison and nothing is without poison;

the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison”

Paracelsus (1493 – 1541)

Paracelsus was a Swiss physician, alchemist and philosopher, who introduced the concept that the dose makes the poison. Nothing is inherently good or bad. For example, we all know that we should drink between 1.5 and 2.5 liters of water per day, but few people know that if we drink 6 liters of water we would probably die.

250 mg/kg of caffeine are lethal, meaning that we should drink more than 100 cups of coffee to consume a lethal dose of caffeine. Similarly, if we eat more than 40 pears, we will ingest a deadly dose of formaldehyde.

References:

Borra, “Consumer perspectives on food labels”, (2006), https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/83.5.1235S

Hall and Osses, “A review to inform understanding of the use of food safety messages on food labels”, (2013), https://doi.org/10.1111/ijcs.12010

Sunstein, “Viewpoint: Are food labels good?”, (2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2020.101984

List of food additives approved in the EU: https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/foods_system/main/?event=substances.search&substances.pagination=1

European Food Information Council (EUFIC): https://www.eufic.org/en/who-we-are

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