How to decode a food label


Further down the ingredient list, you’ll also come across names that are less recognizable than oats, sugar, or nuts. In the EU, manufacturers use a system of short codes to describe additives called “E numbers”, which over the years have gained a controversial – and sometimes undeserved – reputation as dangerous and mysterious chemicals. A few, like the artificial coloring E122 in cakes and candies, may have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity. But others are good for you, or at least harmless: E300 is vitamin C, E948 is oxygen and E160c is paprika.

In the United States, such a coding does not exist and these additives are described with their chemical name. So on an American label you would read “sodium caseinate”, rather than “E469”. On the surface it would seem clearer, but even this convention is a bit obtuse about what the substance actually is: Sodium caseinate is used in foods like sausage or bread, and is the main ingredient in cream. coffee, but neither its E number nor its chemical name would tell you that it is a protein derived from milk.

Another sodium-based difference between countries to consider is that the United States lists sodium levels on its products (in particular its nutrition labels, which we will discuss next), while the EU lists salt. Salt can be a type of sodium, but sodium is a category that also includes the caseinate additive just mentioned, along with other ingredients like baking soda.

Nutritional intake

As your eye wanders around a packet of processed foods, you will likely also come across some form of nutritional information too much.

Some countries, like the UK, have a nutrition traffic light system that expresses how healthy a processed food is in terms of fat, saturated salts, sugars and salt, using the colors red, amber and green. For example, an oven-baked dish may contain 7.7 g of saturated fat and therefore be labeled in red. In some cases (but not all) it is also accompanied by a percentage, in this case 39%. The color palette was designed to be intuitively easy to understand, but the way the percentages are calculated may not be immediately obvious. The 39% of this meal is calculated using the “reference intake”, which is the maximum recommended amount. In Europe, this value is gradually replacing the “Guideline Daily Amounts” (GDA) on labeling, which differed according to gender and age.


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