What’s Not on the Label Could Hurt You

Many of us have become curious about the contents of our food and products through researching an ailment that we’ve been struggling with, left unaided by doctor visits.

For me, that ailment was painful IBS. For those who have never been diagnosed with this, it’s basically a catch-all term for stomach pains of unexplained cause or origin.

I visited many doctors over the years, including a gastroenterologist who launched me down the usual path of invasive investigational procedures. All coming back as “negative” and leading them to drop me into the category of those with stress-related digestive pain.

Luckily, a very attentive GP finally suggested that I could be sensitive to sulfites. I devoured all the information I could find about sulfites, adjusted my diet and was without pain for the first time in over 15 years!
Problem solved, right?

Most days I’m able to depend on my knowledge of what foods tend to contain sulfites and to diligently read labels. But, I still occasionally have flare-ups. This led me to look more into what ingredients are required on food labels.

Trace Ingredients

According to the FDA, Incidental Additives which have no “function or technical effect in the finished product” are exempt from being required on the label. But, the additive COULD have a “function or technical effect” WITHIN an ingredient included on the label.

For example, bottled lemon juice is generally preserved with sulfites and is labeled as such. But, if lemon juice is included in a product such as humus, sulfites are not required on the label if it contains less than 10ppm of the finished product (FDA definition of trace ingredients). I’m unsure of the science behind the determination of levels allowed to be undisclosed, but I can categorically say that it is significant enough to cause me days of pain. I should be donated to science, as my talents as a “canary” in detecting sulfites are impressive.

It’s very obvious to me when foods contain sulfites, so what other undisclosed ingredients or Incidental Additives are in our foods?

Natural Flavors

Another area of concern is where ingredients are permitted to be grouped together and given a term of “natural flavors”.

The FDA defines Natural Flavors as:

The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

This can be of significant concern not just for those suffering from food sensitivities but presents a real challenge for us to be sure what’s contained in our foods.

Vegetarians and Vegans are also especially affected, when animal ingredients may be hiding in common unrelated foods. The Vegetarian Resource Group’s website has a great deal of information on animal ingredients included in everything from wine, sugar, chewing gum and other unlikely products.

Manufacturing Processes

Even if the label clearly shows ingredients included, how do we know what’s in those ingredients?

The misinformation about the common “natural preservative”, GSE (Grapefruit Seed Extract) is a great illustration of how ingredients can become corrupted. GSE is commonly used in supplements and personal care products that many of us use as alternatives to ones containing known harmful ingredients.

If we look at how this ingredient is processed before inclusion in products, we can see that it is far from being a “natural preservative”. The Organic Consumers Association outlines the chemicals that have been found in the finished product as benzalkonium chloride, parabens, and triclosan. Aren’t these the ingredients we’re trying to avoid when purchasing Natural products?

Better Living Tips

The positive side of my sulfite sensitivity, is that it has led me to return to cooking from scratch and with whole recognizable ingredients. In the long run this will lead to better health for my family and I.

There are times that we’re rushed or want a few staple products on-hand that we purchase from trusted manufacturers who include full ingredient disclosure. If you find these difficult to identify, call the company. Ask them what “natural flavorings” the product contains. If they won’t disclose it due to industry secrets, ask about specific ingredients that you are concerned with, such as a particular preservative or animal ingredients. If they are unwilling to give you more information, let them know how important full ingredient disclosure is to you and that you will no longer purchase their products. Also let others know and post a comment on their website and all social media outlets citing your conversation with them.

When it comes to personal care products and household cleaners, consult the EWG Skindeep Database. Simply input the product name and you will get scientifically verified rating of the disclosed ingredients. Or, regularly consult this database before shopping to select safer products.

We have more power than we think – we can create change with our feet.

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