What are our foods made of and why does it matter - or does it?

“Flip the package around and read the label, that small print there.”


An instruction my nutrition teacher once gave to our class. It was time for us to get to know what the different foods – those we are used to eating almost every day – in true essence are. Write it down, categorize them, analyze them... That granola bar? Ingredients: high-fructose corn syrup, rolled oats, nuts and seeds... Or that raspberry-vanilla low-fat yoghurt? Fat-free pasteurized milk, raspberry, fructose, milk protein.

That was back in 2016 and in an university in the US, but what that taught me was that the level of knowledge around food labeling, different ingredients – more to say, nutrients and different sources of them - was then, and still might be, highly varying. For some, knowing what different terms and ingredients mean comes through (self-)education, experience and/or just by own interest about the topic. For others, it might feel somewhat of a struggle to try to figure out what that sweet-sounding kind-of thing in that snack bar actually means.

This post is not about breaking down every detail about food labeling – which, some sources say, dates back to the 1800's in the US when it began to be important to mark down ingredients to avoid food-borne illnesses and in the late 1900’s developed while eating ready-made and processed foods became more popular. In Finland, food labels and lists of ingredients are known to be trustworthy, but along with the growth of the amount of processed products in the market, the lists have gotten longer. So, to be able to follow f.ex. national nutrition recommendations, knowing certain things might come handy.

MANDATORY MARKINGS

In Finland, the following information must be included in the product label:

  • The name of the product
  • List of the ingredients & quantity
  • Minimum shelf life or the last date of use + possible guide for preservation
  • The name of the producer, packer or distributor in the EU & an address
  • Country of origin (if not mentioning that could mislead consumers)
  • Batch code/number
  • Possible guide for usage
  • Any needed warnings (like allergy information)
  • Alcohol content

In fresh farm or meat products, the country of origin is in all cases a mandatory information. This includes meat & fish, eggs, carrots and apples, strawberry & blueberry and mushrooms. Other rules apply, both national and EU-level, in different food groups and produce and can be examined from Ruokavirasto’s guide book (here) in Finnish and EU’s Food Safety guidelines (here).

LIST OF INGREDIENTS

“The shorter the better” is a phrase commonly heard when it comes to lists in food products. When you start to read the backside of the package, normally the first three to four ingredients listed are the ones the product mainly consists of. In that yoghurt pint, it might be (fat-free) milk, some sort of sweetener and a fresh berry, for example.

DIFFERENT TYPES OF SWEETENERS, SUGARS & FATS

The field that keeps getting wider. Commonly known variants of sugar are fructose (“fruit sugar”), dextrose, glucose, high-fructose glucose syrup or HCFS (not that common in Finnish products), honey, maple/agave/other syrups, invert sugar, isoglucose, levulose, maltose, molasses and sucrose. Sugar can also be mentioned in its different product forms, f.ex. granulated or caster sugar, confectioners sugar or cane sugar, to mention a few.

Sweeteners include artificial sweeteners like acesulfame K, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, widely popular stevia and sugar alcohols like xylitol, sorbitol, isomalt, erythritol, maltitol and mannitol. These sugar substitutes are meant to provide sweetness without the calories – there’s an ongoing scientific debate on their effects and quality, but while eating a normal, well-balanced diet with more fresh than processed product, consuming these in moderate amounts shouldn’t worry you too much.

Fats are divided into unsaturated and saturated fats, trans fats and fatty acids omega 3 and omega 6. The ones to avoid are saturated and trans fats whose chemical structure differs from unsaturated ones affecting the way they function in our bodies (more info in Finnish here). Saturated and trans fats are known to be connected to a higher level of LDL cholesterol and elevated risk of heart disease and other chronic disease. Depending on the product, fats are listed in the nutrition breakdown on the backside of the package, separating the amount of unsaturated and saturated fats. Worth noticing is that some of the fats can be “hidden” in the product which could otherwise sound “healthy”, like some of the “sugar-free” alternatives in the market.

Finnish diets are known, in general, to consist of too much fat, recommendations being 25–40% of your daily energy consumption from which maximum 10% from saturated fats, being around 60 to 80 grams per day for an adult. Based on FinRavinto 2017 study, about 38% of energy in Finnish diets comes from fats, out of which 21% from the recommended unsaturated fats. In Finland, trans fats are uncommon, but paying attention to the fat content of your product of choice helps you to aim for the recommendations and to know which kind of fats you’re consuming.

ADDITIONAL MARKINGS & RED FLAGS

Producers like to mark down different descriptive markings to their products so that a consumer would get more information in “one bite” – examples like Good from Finland, Organic, Fair Trade. And, of course, markings are also used for selling their products. Some producers want to showcase potential customer conditions their farm or factory operates or how they treat their livestock – in some cases, mentions cannot be verified, though there are specific standards for using Organic and other regulated markings. A more thorough list of the markings used in Finland and regulations behind them can be found here: Ruokatieto & Kuluttajavirasto.

Worth mentioning are markings which should be considered as “red flags” – logos, testimonials, too good to be true - solutions and mentions like Natural, Healthy or Detox enhanced with vibrant colours can be misleading and don’t necessarily cover their claims with coherent scientific studies. With such products, in some cases being precise is hugely important since some of them might include ingredients potentially harmful if on a certain medication. F.ex. it doesn’t mean products labeled this way are meant to be completely avoided, but it is important to know what you’re consuming.

ABOUT THE BALANCE

So why the fuss? For some, there are different biological reasons to try minimize or avoid completely certain foods including (in some cases, severe) allergens or foods that a person’s digestion system cannot properly digest; lactose in cow milk products, Fodmap-carbohydrates and fibre in legumes (otherwise great sources of protein, fibre and certain micro-nutrients and vitamins!) for example. For some, eating is a sum of different well-being related, ethical or social decisions – many of us want to know where our food comes from. And for others, eating in a certain way is a choice based on a person’s current life situation. In any case, and in a landscape of more processed food products than ever, knowing your way through it all might be puzzling.

But yes, in general, while eating foods we are familiar with, strictly going through every small print in every package does no one any good – at least socially or mentally. Food is to be enjoyed and considered without any extra stress or unnecessary  “food rules”. Even though, maybe one rule could apply – eat food that makes you and the environment feel good.


Annastiina Lehtonen
Visual journalist,
Master of Health Science &
Nutrition student at University of Helsinki

Photo credits:
Alexander Mils / Pexels
Daniela Constantini / Pexels
Eric McClean / Pexels

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