Deciphering the ingredients label

Look at the ingredients on the back of your ice cream. What do you expect to see? Milk, sugar, perhaps vanilla? What you might find is glycerol monostearate, an emulsifier that can help to keep the milk fat in suspension, and limit the growth of ice crystals on the ice cream. Labels can be deceiving and many times we don’t even know what we are eating!

The ingredients with the strange names usually fall under certain categories and serve certain functions in our food. For instance:

Acidity regulators: These are used to adjust the acidity or basicity of foods and include buffers, acids, alkalis and neutralising agents.

Anti-caking agents: These make the product more free-flowing.

Emulsifiers: These are very common and allow for easier mixing of oils and water. An example of a food emulsifier is an egg yolk.

Flavour enhancers: These help brings out the natural flavour in the food. The most well known is the controversial monosodium glutamate (MSG) sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid and a form of glutamate. MSG is commonly found in Chinese food, and processed foods such as soups and sauces.

Modified starch: A type of thickening agent.

Stabilisers: These are added to food to help stop foods from separating.

Sweeteners: Natural and non-sugar sweeteners. How many ways can you say "sugar"!

"There are many, many ways to say sugar, and consumers are not often aware that a product contains a lot of sugar, because it doesn’t say sugar," nutritionist Susan Burke tells us.

All nutritive sweeteners have a similar amount of calories, ranging from 16 calories per teaspoon for white sugar (sucrose), to 20 calories for honey. Read the label; you’ll be surprised to see all the sugars in a box of breakfast cereal. They all have similar nutrition. Even if you think it’s healthier, it’s still just sugar as far as your body is concerned. If you eat too much, it’s stored as fat."

These sugars often appear on food ingredient lists: glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, sucrose (white sugar), corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, honey, malt syrup, fruit-juice concentrate and cane sugar.

So the unpronounceable ingredients you find in your food usually serve one of the functions listed above. Now, while it is near impossible to list all the strange ingredients you might encounter, we can list for you some of those you’re likely to encounter:

SWEETENERS AND FLAVOUR ENHANCERS

Aspartame - Aspartame is better known by its trade name Nutrisweet, an artificial low-calorie sweetener. Aspartame can be found in mints, carbonated soft drinks, cereals and yogurts.

"This FDA-approved sweetener has been proven safe over more than 10 years of testing," Burke said. "Only people who can’t process phenylalanine (a rare genetic defect) need to avoid aspartame."

Maltol - This is another flavour enhancer that gives a taste reminiscent of freshly baked bread. It is used in cakes and different varieties of bread.

Sorbitol - A type of low-calorie sweetener also called sugar alcohol. It is a sweetener that occurs naturally in fruits and is also a thickening agent. It is often considered better for diabetics because it is absorbed more slowly and does not cause a rapid blood sugar rise or promote tooth decay. It is used in sugar-free sweets, chewing gums, frozen desserts and baked goods.

"Excess consumption can lead to gastrointestinal upset, including boating, gas and diarrhoea," Burke said. "Children are especially vulnerable. And since sorbitol does contain carbohydrates and is not calorie-free, consumers need to consider that sorbitol provides one-third fewer calories than sugar - about 2.6 calories per gram."

EMULSIFIERS

Lecithin - Susan says lecithin is "naturally occurring in eggs. It’s used commercially as an emulsifier and processed from soyabean or sesame seed oil." Lecithin is used for homogeneity in food products. For instance, lecithin is the emulsifier that keeps chocolate and cocoa butter from separating when making a chocolate bar.

Xanthan gum - A polysaccharide used as a stabiliser and emulsifier. It can be used as a thickener in sauces and as a fat substitute with fewer calories.

Preservatives are additives that inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and moulds in foods.

Antioxidants are chemicals used to stop the oxidation process from taking place and prevent the product from spoiling. Often these are used to keep products fresh for longer periods.

PRESERVATIVES

Beta-Hydroxy-Toluene (BHT) - It is an antioxidant and preservative added to food to protect freshness. It is also added directly to shortening, cereals and other foods mainly containing fats and oils.

Sorbic acid - Susan says this is "commonly used in cheese making, because it allows the growth of some bacteria (necessary for cheese production) but limits fungal growth. Also used in other fermented goods, including wine and yeast breads."

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