A Guide to Food Labels

Trying to make healthy eating choices can be a bit of a minefield. Being smart about food labels can help you to decipher what’s going into your food products, and your body.

Here are the biggest “baddies” to look out for in your supermarket food labels:


Depending on their function, the additives used are divided into categories, and each is assigned a code, generally composed of an E followed by 3 or 4 digits. Here’s a look at the main categories of additives (colourants, preservatives, sweeteners…), and what they are used for.

Dyes (E 100 E 180)

Dyes enhance the colour of the food. Often, these are artificial dyes, but some manufacturers use natural colouring. The term “natural dyes” doesn’t mean that the dyes were already present in the food, but simply that they are found in nature and added to the food.

Both natural and artificial dyes are abundantly found in foodstuffs, and often mislead consumers about the ingredients used (for instance, “yellow dye” might suggest the presence of eggs in a dish where none have been added.)

Certain dyes can also cause allergies in sensitive people. Recently, studies have even linked a number of dyes to attention deficit disorder in children. It’s best to avoid these artificial colours.

The main culprits include: tartrazine, quinoline yellow, sunset yellow FCF (orange yellow S), azorubine (carmoisine), ponceau 4R (cochineal red A), allura red AC.

Preservatives (especially those with codes E 200 & E 285)

Preservatives are substances that prevent the growth of bacteria and mould on food products. In some very specific cases, adding preservatives can be useful. For example, a small amount of sulphites (much lower than the levels permitted by applicable law) is acceptable in wine, because it makes the product more stable.

Unfortunately, some legislators err on the side of excess, authorising the use of preservatives in high doses that are not strictly necessary. Also, take note that some preservatives can cause allergic reactions.

While preservatives are sometimes necessary, there are many cases where they are not, or where natural preservative agents could be used instead.

Examples: sorbic acid, benzoic acid, nitrates and nitrites, sulphur dioxide, nisin.

Emulsifiers and Thickeners (especially those with codes E 400 & E 495)

This group also includes gelling agents and stabilisers. All these substances are used to give consistency to a product or to maintain it. They are often used in “light” or “diet” food products. Emulsifiers and thickeners can replace caloric ingredients such as carbohydrates and fats. More often, emulsifiers serve to mask the lack of basic ingredients in food products (like eggs in ice cream or mayonnaise).

Some thickeners are also known allergens.

Examples include: alginates, diphosphates, triphosphates and polyphosphates, pectin, guar gum, flour of locust bean gum, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids.

Flavour Enhancers (E 620 to E 640)

These additives, the best known of which are glutamates, serve to intensify or alter the taste of food. Flavour enhancers are unnecessary and misleading. Glutamate can be found in a vast quantity of food products, and a high daily intake can cause intolerances even in those not commonly sensitive to this additive.

Examples: glutamate, inosinate, guanylate.

Artificial Sweeteners (E 950 to E 967, E 420, E 421)

These sweeteners replace sugars in “diet” products such as soft drinks, chewing gum, sweets, beer, yoghurt and more. Their use can be acceptable in some circumstances (for example, for people who can’t consume sugar), but the risk, especially for children, is that they can reach the daily recommended dose very quickly.

Examples: cyclamates, sorbitol, xylitol, aspartame, saccharin, malitol.

There are many natural sweeteners available on the market today, including date syrup, coconut nectar, agave and stevia.

With Additives, Less is More

Watch out for these ingredients, and if they’re listed on your food labels, opt for an alternative with fewer artificial additives (or a more natural substitute). Avoiding highly processed and pre-packaged foods can help to reduce the number of preservatives and additives that end up on your plate.

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