Navigating The Ingredients List
When it came to naming this piece, we were torn between a subtle ‘Navigating the ingredients list’ or a more appropriate ‘what the the **** is all this **** in my food?’. Whilst we opted for the first, the latter is probably a little more appropriate. This week, we’re taking a look at what all those ‘sort of know what it is, but still not entirely sure’ ingredients are, and explaining why they’re actually added to our food in the first place. To name a few: soy lecithin, xanthan gum, yeast extract, milk powder… they’re in so many ‘everyday’ foods, but the information around what they actually are and why they’re used is hazy at best. So we’ve collated both our naturopaths knowledge and a heap of the research we’ve been doing around our own product development to give you a fact based guide to your ingredients list.
Stabilisers are added to food to (pointing out the obvious here) stabilise it, but how does food end up unstable in the first place? It comes down to mixing two ingredients together that don’t really want to be mixed together (water and oil for instance), so stabilisers are used to stop them from separating again. The main reason we tend to find them in packaged products and not home cooking is based around appearance, texture and continuity.
Probably the most recognisable as it had a little bit of time in the limelight when gluten free baking kicked off, but traditionally it’s always been used as a stabiliser, most often found in ice-cream.
Put simply, it’s fermented sugar that is dried and ground into a powder. It’s natural in as much sense as it’s not a chemical, but it’s very much ‘man made’ and is known to be a digestive irritant to most people, so if you suffer in that department it may not be your best friend.
Unlike xanthan gum, guar gum is derived from an actual food: the guar bean, or Indian cluster bean, which grows primarily in India and Pakistan. They look similar to green beans, and are commonly used for cooking in the areas where they are grown. It’s a soluble fibre, so it’s pretty harmless unless you suffer with digestive issues such as IBS or SIBO.
LOCUST BEAN GUM
Locust bean gum is pretty similar to guar gum across the board, the only difference being that it is derived from the seeds of the carob tree instead. As with a lot of these things, if you have digestive problems, it’s best to avoid it, otherwise there’s nothing to be worried about. A lot of dairy free yoghurts and ice creams will include these which is perfectly fine, the only one we say to check the labels on is coconut milk, as it’s really not a necessary ingredient if it’s a quality product.
E460, E466 E410 E412 E415 (etc etc.)
This is possibly the most annoying element when it comes to navigating an ingredients list. When you sell a product under EU trading standards, there’s a list of permitted additives/stabilisers etc, and they all have a code name, such as those above. Quite often a company will list the code name rather than the actual name of the ingredient, leaving us as the consumer in the dark about what’s actually in our food (unless of course you carry around an additives handbook… but that’s probably taking it a step too far). Three of those in the list above are actually the natural gums we mentioned earlier, whereas the others are made from stuff such as wood pulp and acid (yum), but when they’re written like this, how are we to guess? As a general rule, if it’s in code form, they’re probably trying to hide it for a reason. If you’re interested in learning more about what they are, head here.
So remember how we said that stabilisers are used to stop ingredients from separating? Emulsifiers are used to get the ingredients to mix together in the first place, as well as improving the texture and shelf life simultaneously. The first ever 100% natural emulsifier was egg yolks, until we figured out the exact compound which was causing the ingredients to mix together smoothly.
This one is without a doubt the most popular - in fact it’s hard to find a product on supermarket shelves which doesn’t include it. Lecithin is a natural compound found in a lot of ingredients (chickpeas/cauliflower etc) but extracting it from soy seems to be the most popular choice. It’s an essential fat, comes with a list of nutrients and generally does more good than it does harm so it’s really not one to worry about.
This is basically the same as above, except it comes from sunflower seeds over soy, so it’s a better if you’re not a fan of, or intolerant to soy.
Whilst the name sounds pretty alarming, citric acid in its natural form is actually a great ingredient with a ton of health benefits and is found abundantly in fruit, especially citrus fruits. If this one is in the ingredients list, it really isn’t something to worry about.
This one’s mainly found in dried fruit, fizzy drinks and wine, and is a chemical we generally try to avoid because it kills off any good bacteria present in the food. We’re also pretty convinced that sulfur-free wines don’t give us hangovers half as bad are their sulfur-full friends, so that’s all the reason we need to avoid it…
With all the E’s and numbers flying around, it can be quite confusing to distinguish the good ones from the bad. A lot of products tend to have extra added vitamins, which can look quite misleading at a glance, but really don’t need to be.
Take B12 or D2 for example, they’re actually both just beneficial vitamins and a wholly separate category to the E466’s etc, and tend to be added to back up health claims that companies want to make on their packaging.
Anything that starts with ‘modified’ isn’t exactly setting a great picture, and modified starch is no different. It’s starch (corn usually in GF products) that has been modified through either heat or acid treatment to make it ‘easier’ to use in certain situations such as powdered, long-life or low fat food. We’ll let you make your own judgement, but seeing as though both heat and acid treatment strip all nutritional content, I think we’ll pass on this one.
This one is a real blood boiler in HQ because the amount of ‘interesting ingredients’ you can hide under ‘flavouring’ is huge, whilst elsewhere we can’t even refer to nutritional yeast as nutritional yeast (we have to call it yeast flakes… sexy). Generally speaking, if a product lists ‘natural flavouring’ it’s probably fine (although we always opt for extracts instead) but if it just says ‘flavouring’ it’s gonna be chemical based, and not really something to get excited about. Rule of thumb - a product should have enough flavour anyway without the need for extra chemicals.
If you're interested in learning more about which ingredients we use (spoiler: it's none of the above) then have a read of our article all about how we naturally preserve our food.