Quantity over Quality?

As consumers, we’re constantly bombarded with food options. Supermarket shelves are packed to the brim with product choices and, although product labelling has improved in recent years, is it giving us a false sense of security?

Are popular foods still being bulked up with additives and preservatives, at the expense of nutritional benefits?

When it comes to food shopping, we’re living in a world full of choices. Enter a supermarket and the chances are you’ll be faced with aisles full of possibilities. For example, not just a few loaves of bread to choose from, but numerous loaves – from pre-packed and sliced, to long-life vacuum packed and freshly baked.

Supermarkets have certainly made shopping convenient, with most of the items typically needed by the average consumer now available in one store. A combination of convenience and advances in food technology means that many foods last longer – both on shop shelves and at home – so don’t always need to be used immediately.

Food labelling

Food labelling has improved around the world in the last few years and it’s now easier to find information that indicates how healthy the food is and whether it has high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Plus packaging normally indicates reference intakes of how many calories, fats, sugar and salt you’ll consume per 100g.

With all these details included on the labels, it would be easy to assume that it covers all you need. But though it’s definitely a good basis for issues such as fat, sugar and calories, sometimes you have to look a bit further to get the full lowdown on everything in your food.

There’s no doubt that food nutrition labelling has improved, which is great, but additives and preservatives are certainly still being included in many products.
The ingredients label is the place to look for details of this. Additives are added to help food products look better, taste better and last longer, plus sometimes to help them be cheaper too.

The idea of preserving food in this manner isn’t new. Salt, for example, has been used for centuries to do just that. However, some additives are more natural than others.

Insight into additives

Common types of food additives include antioxidants, which are added to foods to help prevent products from going off or changing colour, flavour enhancers, which help enhance the flavour of foods and preservatives, which help food keep longer and be safer for longer.

Also used regularly are colours and sweeteners, plus emulsifiers, stabilisers, thickeners and gelling agents, the latter of which all help thicken recipes and ensure that ingredients that wouldn’t naturally combine or gel together (like water and oil do) for the purposes of that particular processed recipe.

Before being added to foods, additives have to be tested to ensure they’re safe and really do ‘add’ something to the product (they can’t be included if they have no purpose). If additives pass safety tests in the EU, for example, they’re given an E number. Some manufacturers choose to use the E number on ingredients list, or might include the full name of the ingredient.

What can be confusing is that some additives and E numbers approved in the EU aren’t necessarily approved elsewhere in the world or in fact deemed safe.

Not all additives are bad for you or lower the nutrition of foods. In some cases, E numbers are given to natural ingredients. For example, E300 is vitamin C, E101 is vitamin B2, E160c is paprika and E162 refers to beetroot juice. Others, however, are artificial and manmade, and it’s these that tend to be of concern to the health-conscious.

In terms of the quantity of additives or preservatives found in individual foods, and therefore how nutritional – or not – a product might be, one useful indicator is how soon in the ingredients list the item is noted. Ingredients are listed in the order of weight, so the key ingredients of an item will be listed first.

If ingredients such as sugar, butter, oil or corn syrup are high up on the list, then you can tell that the product is high in fat or sugar and therefore is unlikely to be all that healthy. Likewise, if an E number or additive is listed early on in the ingredients list, then it’s an indication that it plays a key role in the composition of the product.

Eating without additives

If you’re keen to get the best nutritional benefits from food, then wholefoods and fresh or organic produce – rather than processed foods – should provide you with more of nature’s goodness. They’re rich in natural vitamins and minerals and aren’t bulked up with unwanted additives or preservatives.

Unfortunately, wholefoods tend to have less space dedicated to them in supermarkets, but specialist shops carry larger ranges. They can be more expensive, as they’re not mass produced, and they often don’t have such a long shelf life, as they’re not pumped with preservatives and additives to keep them fresh beyond their natural peak.

If cost is an issue, it may be beneficial to consider which foods are of most importance to you – both in terms of nutritional value and meal versatility – and opt to buy the best of those. Balanced alongside other supermarket foods, at least you can rest assured that you’re getting the best of the nutrients you need and any others can be supplemented.

For those keen to avoid processed, preserved and additive ridden food more diligently, then growing your own, supporting local farmer’s markets and cooking meals from scratch with fresh ingredients are all healthy strategies to adopt. It may take more time and planning, but if you want the most natural diet, then it’s worth it for your peace of mind.

It’s good to care about your health, nutrition and diet. After all, as the adage goes, ‘you are what you eat.’