What to keep an eye out for in your grocery items.

14 09 10 label

Packaging on food items can be difficult to navigate: most wrappers have health claims like ‘all natural’ and ‘fat free’ that often have little justification, and can be incredibly misleading. This is complicated by the fact that every other day, there seems to be some new buzz-ingredient that’s potentially harmful or causing you to gain weight. We spoke with a registered dietitian, Nancy Bevilacqua, MHSc, RD, to find out which ingredients to avoid, and which don’t quite live up to their bad reputations.

Corn Syrup

“A syrup made from corn, this is used to soften texture, add volume, prevent crystallization of sugar and enhance flavour,” explains Bevilacqua.  High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is sweeter tasting, due to higher levels of fructose and can be found on food-labels as ‘glucose-fructose.’ HFCS can be found in soft drinks, fruit drinks, canned fruit, flavoured yogurt, breakfast cereals and baked goods, to name a few. Bevilacqua notes: “HFCS is basically added sugar and results in greater Calories in the product. It may also cause bloating and gas if consumed in excess amounts because it feeds the natural bacteria in our intestinal tract, and results in increased production of gas.”

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

MSG is actually a salt from the naturally occurring glutamic acid, which is found in all animal and plant proteins. Used as an additive, MSG enhances natural flavours in foods like soups, salads, meat, poultry and seafood dishes. The use of MSG in food products is NOT regulated as a food additive. Health Canada states that generally, the use of MSG is not a health hazard to consumers, however some individuals may have sensitivities or allergic-type reactions. “One should be aware though that food products containing MSG may be high in sodium, and will contribute to the total amount of sodium one eats in the day. A high intake of sodium can increase the risk for high blood pressure”, explains Bevilacqua. It is considered misleading to display “no added MSG” on packaging when there are other forms of the glutamic acid present, such as hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) or hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP). Though MSG is technically naturally derived, it’s best to eat clean, whole foods and avoid adding additional salt to your diet where possible.

Sodium Nitrites

Used as a preservative, typically in meats, sodium nitrite is used “to prevent bacterial growth and combat botulism,” explains Bevilacqua. “Nitrites are not cancer-causing by themselves,” she continues, “but in certain conditions in the body they can be changed into by-products called N-nitroso compounds: these are associated with an increased risk of cancer.” Nitrites are often found in deli meats, hot dogs, sausages and bacon.

Soy Lecithin

Acting as an emulsifier, soy lecithin can be found in salad dressings, mayonnaise, chocolates and cooking spray. Soy lecithin contains trace amounts of soy proteins, which could possibly trigger allergies of those sensitive to soy-allergens. “Many people who are allergic to soy can still tolerate products containing soy lecithin. Check with your allergist to determine if products containing soy lecithin are safe for your particular allergy,” says Bevilacqua. For people not allergic to soy, soy lecithin in food products should not be of concern.

Artificial Colouring

“Some added food colours may cause changes in behaviour and/or hyperactivity in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),” begins Bevilacqua. Some colours are believed to have adverse health effects, and quinoline yellow, carmoisine and Ponceau 4R colours are not permitted for use in Canada. Bevilacqua continues: “Health Canada is currently in the process of developing regulations to improve awareness of the type of food colour present in a food product; currently names of food dyes do not have to appear on Canadian food labels.”