Tuesday, June 18th, 2013
I just learned something from the wildly intelligent creators of the Foodfacts website. You know how jellybeans have that shiny finish? To achieve that pretty shell, some manufacturers use bug juice and call it confectioners glaze on the side of the box. Really! (Will I ever be able to eat one again?) That’s why we need Sarah Butterfield and Stan Rak, the editor and author of the new Foodfacts book called Baby: Nutrition, Allergen and Score Guide.
Below, they answered some important questions that parents need to know about our kids’ food. Keep reading to find out what yeast extract really is! I had no idea.
KK: What’s wrong with the way U.S. food producers list ingredients on food labels?
SB and SR: One problem is that manufacturers will use different names for ingredients as a way to hide what they really are. If you’re reading a label that lists, “evaporated cane juice, yeast extract and natural flavors,” you may not know that those ingredients are “sugar, msg and ???.” “Evaporated Cane Juice” is processed sugar. “Yeast extract” is a flavor enhancer that contains processed free glutamic acid, the compound that triggers reactions in people sensitive to MSG. “Natural flavors” is a label used for any number of ingredients that manufacturers don’t have to disclose. In fact, “natural flavors” could refer to a combination of fifty chemicals blended to simulate a flavor, or it could also just be a form of monosodium glutamate. Here’s a list of what one artificial strawberry flavor contains.
It’s not enough anymore for a consumer to read the labels because they are often intentionally misleading or difficult to understand. Foodfacts.com exists to help people understand what the ingredients are, so that if you look up a product with “yeast extract,” you can click on the word in the ingredient list and find out exactly what it is. On top of that, if as product has MSG, flavors, added sugars or other controversial ingredients, that information is on the page, too.
KK: Is the U.S. different from other countries in terms of how food producers label foods?
SB and SR: In Australia, labels have to show what percentage an ingredient is of the entire product so you can see how much of it is sugar, salt, starches, etc. Europe is also much more stringent about GMO products – in the UK, just being processed with a GMO ingredient requires disclosure on the label, even if that ingredient isn’t in the final product.
KK: Isn’t it a law that nutrition labels provide a full disclosure in terms of ingredients?
SB and SR: Manufacturers have to state what is in their products, but they have very wide parameters in terms of how to disclose. As I discussed above, manufacturers love to put more appealing names on less appealing ingredients. For example, if a manufacturer wants to use the chemical secreted by a female lac insect to give their jelly beans that appealing glaze, they are going to call it “confectioners glaze” instead of “bug juice,” because it sounds much better! And they certainly aren’t going to admit that the pleasant raspberry taste that they attribute to “natural flavors” could actually be the secretions from a beaver anal gland, also known as castoreum!
KK: Is it true that certain controversial ingredients commonly used in U.S. processed foods are banned in Europe or disclosure through warning label required?
SB and SR: Yes! One example is Carrageenan. In the US, this seaweed-derived additive is GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe, which is an FDA designation. However, a joint FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) / WHO (World Health Organization) study recommended that it not be used as thickener in infant formula, because infants might absorb too much of it, leading to gastrointestinal problems such as bleeding. The UK listened to this study, recognized that the possibility of danger is enough, and restricted the use of Carrageenan in infant formula. I think this is a big difference between the two – European countries want something to be proven as safe before allowing it in food. The US seems content to allow in anything that hasn’t been proven dangerous. This leaves a grey area of ingredients that may or may not be safe, which is why people rely on our website – we highlight the ingredients in that grey area and let you know why you might prefer to avoid them.
Another example is artificial dyes, like Red 40 and Yellow 5. Studies have shown links between these chemicals and hyperactivity in children, and there are hundreds of anecdotal examples of parents who chose to reduce artificial ingredients and sugars in their children’s diets rather than jump straight to medication for ADHD and saw very positive results. In the UK, any product sold with those dyes carries a warning label that says, “may have an adverse effect on attention and activity in children.” Parents in the UK can then decide for themselves if that product is okay for their family. In the US, parents aren’t given that information.
By the way, most manufacturers didn’t want to put that label on their products, so they started choosing more natural colorings, like vegetable juice or turmeric extract, proving that you don’t need chemicals and dyes to make food appealing.
KK: Why are some ingredients classified as controversial and what are their side effects?
SB and SR: Foodfacts.com is an unbiased site – we aren’t here to promote a particular diet or lifestyle. We believe that the best consumer is an educated consumer, which is why when there are conflicting reports about an ingredient, we classify it as controversial. There are two ways an ingredient becomes controversial. One is if another government bans the ingredient on a scientific or medical basis, such as the UK banning Carrageenan from infant formula. The other reason we mark something as controversial is if three or more reputable, reliable sources like universities or established non-profits think that the ingredient should be avoided or needs more research. Sometimes on our site, controversial means “we don’t know,” but we think that’s preferable to marking everything as safe by default! The FDA seems to consider ingredients “safe until proven dangerous,” but we work the other way around – “controversial until proven safe!” The side effects depend on the ingredient and can also vary person to person.