How to read food labels and why everyone should read them

Many of us think that reading food labels is something that is done by people watching their weight, or those that have food allergies.

Instead, we should all learn how to read food labels if we are going to consume packaged foods or feed them to our children.

How to read food labels and why everyone should read them

How to read food labels: nutrition facts on a product

A food label lists any ingredient which constitutes more than 2% of a product’s weight. Also, a food label must list all additives (colourings, sweeteners, preservatives, emulsifiers, thickeners and stabilizers).

Manufacturers use food additives to make food look and taste more appealing and to prevent foods from deteriorating.

There are currently 323 EU approved food additives and around 2,500 flavouring additives allowed into food, drink and medicines in the UK.

With the exception of flavourings, additives that have been approved by the EU are given an E number. When evidence of an E number being unsafe for human consumption mounts up, the E number is removed. However, there is plenty of speculation about the safety of some of these approved E numbers. As a result man,y people believe that all E numbers are harmful. This has led to food manufacturers dropping the use of E numbers and using the name of the additive on labels instead.

Actually, some E numbers are perfectly natural and healthy for example: E300 is Vitamin C, and E306 natural Vitamin E.

There are maximum permitted levels of these additives called Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADIs).

If you regularly exceed these ADIs, you could be putting your health at risk. The liver and kidneys have to detoxify and excrete these substances, and children’s organs are immature and small, and may be subjected to the same ADIs as a fully grown adult.

Other health issues associated with additives are:

  • allergic reactions,
  • asthma,
  • eczema,
  • hyperactivity,
  • urticaria,
  • irritation of the gastrointestinal lining,
  • stomach pains,
  • vomiting,
  • diarrhoea,
  • bloating,
  • headaches and migraines.

There is, thankfully, a growing trend to remove artificial additives from our food. However, there are still many products on the supermarket shelves which contain these toxic substances.

The main additives to avoid are:

Tartrazine (E102)

This is an orange/yellow food colouring. Sweets, orange squash, jelly, fizzy drinks and ice lollies often contain it.

Tartrazine can cause:
  • hyperactivity,
  • asthma,
  • urticaria,
  • rhinitis,
  • bronchospasm,
  • blurred vision,
  • skin problems,
  • insomnia
  • and night terrors.

Studies have shown that it depletes the body of zinc. This deficiency increases the risk of behavioural and immune-system problems.

In the UK, products aimed at children under three years old cannot contain it, but general use products can. Instead, absolutely no food or drink product can contain it in Norway and Austria.

In addition to tartrazine, the FSA acknowledges that the following artificial colours can cause hyperactivity: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), ponceau 4R (E124).

Artificial sweeteners

These include aspartame, acesulfame K, sorbitol, saccharin and sucralose.

These chemicals can cause a number of health risks including
  • defective kidney function,
  • behavioural problems,
  • digestive problems,
  • headaches,
  • memory loss,
  • fibromyalgia,
  • brain tumours,
  • depression
  • and overeating.

Many food and drink products, especially diet and low sugar products contain them.

Sadly, many products aimed at children contain these substances – for example, Robinson’s Low Sugar Fruit Shoot contains both aspartame and acesulfame K.

Monosodium Glutamate (E621)

Soups, canned meats and ready meals can contain this flavour enhancer.

It may cause:

  • headaches,
  • palpitations,
  • sweating,
  • nausea,
  • asthma,
  • migraine,
  • dizziness,
  • insomnia,

and might be neurotoxic.

Sodium benzoate (E211)

You can find this artificial food preservative in soft drinks, food products and medicines.

It can cause hyperactivity and the worsening of asthma and eczema.

Medicines containing benzoates have to carry a warning that they may be mildly irritating to the eyes, skin and mucous membranes, but foods and drink containing benzoates do not have to carry a warning.

Foods and drink for the under threes cannot contain it, medicines aimed at children of the same age can use Sodium benzoate.

Tips for avoiding harmful additives:

  • Avoid products that state that they are “low sugar” – this often means that they contain artificial sweeteners
  • Avoid brightly coloured sweets and drinks – this is usually an indication that they contain artificial colourings
  • Buy organic packaged goods where possible. In fact, organic foods cannot contain as many harmful substances.
  • Always read the label! Many products, especially those aimed at children, state that they are free from artificial preservatives and colourings etc, but often still contain artificial sweeteners

For more information:

  • UK Food Guide is a guide to additives in our food
  • The Food Commission is a charity dedicated to improving the quality of food that we eat in the UK
  • Action on Additives has a search facility to identify foods containing harmful additives
  • Amanda Ursell’s book “What are you really eating” is an informative resource for understanding food labels

Some useful videos on how to read food labels

If you are interested in an individualised programme to improve your or your child’s diet or would like help with other health issues, please contact me on 07967 639347 or email

Also, read more about my practice and how nutritional therapy could improve your health. 

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