Understanding Food Labels – A Closer Look at Additives and Preservatives

Understanding Food Labels

” From sodium benzoate to nitrates, our food labels today are chock full of odd sounding preservatives and additives that could be doing more harm than good. HEALTH unravels the mystery behind food labels to help you discern what is healthy and what may be harmful…. “

Understanding Food Labels


With the influx of refined foods, preservatives, additives and colourings in nearly everything we eat, the old adage “you are what you eat” can be dismaying. In fact, today’s more common diseases – diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression and memory loss – are often times diet-related. A food additive, explains Andrew John Picken, Clinical Nutritionist and Owner of Bespoke Wellness based at Emirates Golf Club The Creek Golf & Yacht Club and The Jumeirah Beach Hotel, is a substance that becomes part of a food product – either intentionally or unintentionally – during the processing or food production. “This can be the addition of herbs and spices to flavour a recipe or adding salt to preserve meats,” he says and in fact, most issues with additives are usually not with the natural substances such as salt but with artificial ingredients such as chemicals. “When choosing foods, we must understand food labels and ingredients to be able to make educated choices and ensure the food we are eating is not having a detrimental impact on our health,” says Picken.

There are five main functions of food additives; “These include maintaining product consistency such as emulsifiers or anti-caking agents, improving or preserving the nutrient value, and maintaining the wholesomeness of foods,” he says as well as to control the acidity and alkalinity and provide leavening as well as to provide colour and enhance flavour.


A preservative, says Picken, is a natural or unnatural (chemical) substance used to preserve foods to inhibit spoilage. “There are safe preservatives such as natural preservatives – salt, vinegar, and vitamins (ascorbic acid in lemon) – which can be used successfully as food preservative prohibiting bacterial growth but providing no nasty side effects. “From a nutritionist’s perspective, if it comes out a packet, can or wrapper you are taking a risk,” he says and in fact, most people just eat food with no clue as to the possible implications of what they are eating. “The evolution of processed foods has seen the human race effectively poisoning themselves rather than using food as a medicine,” he says. “Everyone should have knowledge of E-numbers and also food ingredients and actually the best way to eat is natural and unprocessed for health such as The Paleo diet.”

E Number Range

Most people do not understand the idea of “e numbers” says Picken and are listed below. “E Numbers can be natural or unnatural but are mostly unnatural,” he says.

  • E 100-199 are colours
  • E 200-299 are preservatives
  • E 300-399 are antioxidants and acidity regulators
  • E 400-499 are thickeners, stabilizers and emulsifiers
  • E 500-599 are pH Regulators and anti-caking agents
  • E 600-699 are flavour enhancers
  • E 700-799 are antibiotics
  • E 900-999 are miscellaneous such as waxes, synthetic glazes, packing gases, sweeteners, or foaming agents
  • E 1100-1599 are additional chemicals

The Ones to Watch Out For:

• High fructose Corn Syrup : This, says Picken, is found in beverages, cereals, and processed foods. “It functions as a sweetener but has possible side effects that include a link to obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and non alcoholic fatty liver disease,” he says
• Trans-Fat : This most commonly come from the hydrogenation of polyunsaturated fatty acids to make them more solid forms for example, turning vegetable oils into spreads/ margarine by the process of pumping hydrogen atoms through them. “These are mostly found in very unnatural foods such as baked products like pies and pastries, fast foods and fried foods,” he says. “Possible side effects include a link to increased risk of coronary heart disease and also trans fats increase LDL or bad cholesterol and lower HDL or good cholesterol.” There are also reported links between diets high in trans fats and an increased risk of cancer.

• MSG : This is found in processed meat, fish poultry, sauces, soups and crisps, says Picken and functions as a flavour enhancer. “Possible side effects include an increase in blood pressure and it may in fact cause palpitations known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” he says

• Food Colours : These are most commonly found in drinks, candy bars, and sweets, says Picken and there are 9 certified synthetic or unnatural food colours approved in America. “Natural food colours from the pigment of fruits or vegetables are exempt from certification,” he says. “For example Tartazine (E 102- Gamma) is associated with hyperactivity in children.”

• Potassium Bromate (E924) : These are mostly found in baked foods and Picken explains is used as a flour improver. “Possible side effects include a link to certain cancers,” he says

• Titanium Dioxide (E171): This is found in food, medicines, and tooth paste and Pickens says this is used for colouring. “This is linked to cancers and also a rare syndrome called yellow nail syndrome,” he says

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