What’s in Your Food?


by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.

Do you travel to other countries for work? Or maybe for pleasure?

Ever go to the local store to pick up a bite to eat? You pick up a product, look at the label and thought “huh? I haven’t seen that before.” or “why doesn’t this label make any sense?”.

We can´t help with the language barrier, but we can help with other labelling aspects.

In this new post of our InstaHealth series (previous post here), we´ll look at 3 important differences between labels in different countries.

Amount per 100g vs Amount per Serving

In Europe the nutrient information is displayed per 100 grams of food (or per 100 millilitres of drink). However, many labels will also list a portion size (phew!)

The US primarily lists the amount per serving (but the serving size might not be the same for similar products!)

See these differences for yourself with these labels:

So, in the US, you may need to do some calculations when you want to compare two products with different serving sizes…

Even in Europe, you might have to multiply or divide these numbers to get the right amount of nutrients and calories in the weight of food you’re eating!

Now that you’re aware of how manufacturers use these labels, it might help a bit, the next time you want to compare two products.

Food Additives

There is another important difference to note when we examine the ingredients lists: Food additives.

Food additives include a large range of compounds that enhance taste, colour, and other qualities when added to foods.

These compounds often have very complex names, so the European Union abbreviates them to specific “E numbers” to make life easier. (And yes, the E stands for Europe.)

However, the US lists the full name.

Compare the circled regions of the two food labels:

In the European label (on the top) you see an emulsifier being shown by its E number (E471). In contrast, the US (on the bottom) lists the full name of the food additive (monoglycerides of vegetable fatty acids).

So how can you tell what an E number really is?

Well, there’s a handy database where you can find out the full names of E numbers, right here.

Are E numbers all nasty chemicals that may cause harm?

Well, to become an E number, the additive must have been regulated and undergone safety testing, which means that they should be safe.

A few E numbers have undergone further testing and been removed from some products, but in general there’s little need for alarm. Thank goodness!

Not to mention, even things like vitamin C have their own E numbers (E300)!

Is it GM or Not?

One feature of labels that many wonder about relates to the presence of genetically modified (GM) crops and foods, such as corn and soy.

Look at the back of the UK food label below:

In the EU, including the UK, foods must say if they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ingredients produced from GMOs.

But not all countries do this.

Labels in different countries

Some of these countries include the US, Canada, Mexico and Argentina (although activists and legislators are debating changing this). Whereas most European countries, China, India, Japan, and a few others ensure that genetically modified foods are listed on the label:

Many foods producers worldwide may also have a non-GMO stamp on the front of the package, but this is not a requirement.

But what risks do GMOs really pose to us? Are they harmful and unnatural? Are they a boon to world food production? We’ve weighed up the arguments, mixed in a whole lot of science, added a pinch of intrigue, and stirred them all together to create our GMO Science Analysis training. Take a peek here.

 

 

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The-Health-Sciences-Academy-Alejandra-Ruani-small1-right Alejandra "Alex" Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for their students. She is a Harvard-trained scientist and UCL doctoral researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups.

Connect with Alex via email.


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3 Comments

  • Horng Tatt Choong

    Reply Reply October 25, 2018

    I have been looking at food labels and compares between products. This info are great. Thanks for sharing.

    • Fantastic, Choong! You once did an analysis of food labels in your country, feel free to share here! :-)

      THSA Team

      • Horng Tatt Choong

        Reply Reply November 2, 2018

        The Malaysia food labels follow either US or EU format. Sadly, some foods don’t have food label at all.

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