We should watch out for some things on labels, but others don't need to be worried about, says Niki Bezzant.
There's a big trend away from highly-processed foods; more and more, consumers are looking for whole, natural foods; foods that haven't been interfered with too much.
Additives are a big part of that. We tend to be suspicious of food additives, those things with long names and numbers that we don't readily recognise. We're reassured by claims of "no artificial flavours or colours" or "no additives or preservatives". But how much do these things really affect our health?
While we all know that fresh, whole foods are generally best – hard to go wrong with veges and fruit – most of us probably need to buy foods that come in packets on a routine basis.
And there are things we should watch out for on labels, and things we probably don't need to worry too much about.
For a start, a short ingredient list is a good ingredient list. The more ingredients – and the more you don't recognise – the more likely it is that the food you're holding is highly processed. More processing equals more additives, generally speaking.
We know that so-called "ultra-processed" foods are not great for us. A study published earlier this year found that when people ate an ultra-processed diet (full of refined carbs, saturated fat and added sugar) and an unprocessed diet (full of whole foods), when on the processed diet people consumed more food and gained more weight. These foods are less satisfying, the researchers suggested; it's very easy to eat more of them.
Food additives perform different functions in foods, and they're organised by class. In the ingredients list, you will see the class name, followed by the additive name or number in brackets. For example: thickener (pectin) or thickener (440).
Some additives sound scary, but they're not too different from ingredients we might use at home. For example, raising agents are used in baked items like bread; at home we might use baking powder or yeast. More and more flavours are derived from natural ingredients like fruit and vegetables. And antioxidants are common additives, of which vitamin C or ascorbic acid (300) is a pretty common example.
Some additives are necessary to keep food safe; preservatives, for example, stop foods from going mouldy or bad. Some additives are there to make foods more appealing to us. Emulsifiers stop mixtures of oil and water-based ingredients from separating, and thickeners thicken food to an appealing consistency.
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But there are some additives that are not really necessary – and we're probably better off having less of them.
The main one is salt. We might not think of this as an additive, but it's probably the most harmful additive we consume; the recent huge Global Burden of Disease study found salt (sodium) to be responsible for the highest number of premature deaths of anything we consume. Keeping an eye on the sodium on labels is a good idea, and look for anything containing "sodium" or "salt" in the ingredients list.
Nitrates and nitrates are others to keep an eye on. They're listed as the numbers 249-252 and are mainly found in processed meats like bacon, ham and salami. Nitrates and nitrites have been implicated as the cancer-causing agents in processed meat. This is why we're advised to eat little, if any, of these.
Sulphites (numbers 220-228) are other additives that can cause problems for some people. They're found naturally in some foods – dried fruit and wine are the most well-known – but also used as additives to inhibit bacteria. If you're prone to asthma, you may have a reaction to sulphites in food, so it's worth looking out for them.
Sugar is technically an additive – and probably currently the one we focus on the most. In food processing, there are tons of names for sugar – as many as 40. The ones I reckon are the most confusing, though, are the so-called "natural" sugars – honey, rice malt syrup, coconut sugar, coconut nectar, etc. These sound great, but they're just sugar, according to the WHO, so treat them like any other sugar.
Sweeteners – the other category we love to hate – can also be worth watching. The plant-derived sweetener, stevia, is practically ubiquitous these days, and apart from its bitter aftertaste there's nothing to suggest it's problematic. Some others, though – in particular maltitol and sorbitol – although they're low in calories, can cause gut issues, especially for those prone to IBS.
Speaking of IBS, inulin is a new-ish additive (you may also see it expressed as chicory root extract) that's used to add fibre and sweetness to foods. You might spot it in ice creams and yoghurts. It's fine for most people, but if you've got a grumbly gut, you'll want to avoid this one, too.