What’s in food isn’t always on the label: manufacturers don’t have to name everything they use. And what they say is often difficult to understand. An instruction manual.
Is a strawberry yogurt a yogurt full of strawberries? Limited. It depends on the details: For example, a cup with “strawberry yoghurt” written on it only has to contain nine grams of real fruit if the entire content is 150 grams. That is about half a strawberry. If the packaging speaks of a “yoghurt with fruit preparation”, less than six grams are sufficient, which corresponds to a third of a berry. And manufacturers can skimp even more with a “strawberry-flavored yoghurt”.
And the taste ? It almost certainly has little to do with the original fruit. Strawberries, for example, lose their aroma during industrial processing and only taste bland. This is also the case with many other original ingredients. That is why many manufacturers help with substitutes from the laboratory and, depending on the product, add other chemical helpers, such as flavors, preservatives , thickeners and colorings . Other substances are also used in savory products, such as flavor enhancers .
There are 316 additives behind the E numbers
According to the Food Labeling Ordinance, so-called additives must be listed on the list of ingredients for packaged products. These substances thicken, acidify, make them longer lasting or larger, they color or enhance the taste.
There are currently 316 substances approved as food additives in the European Union. However, not each of these E numbers stands for its own active ingredient. Many simply indicate different variants of a substance.
Not toxic, but controversial: the additive amaranth
Additives must be mentioned on the packaging either with their chemical name or their E number. The “E” stands for Europe, the numbers behind it describe the substances from E 100 (for the turmeric color curcumin) to E 1520 (for the solvent propylene glycol). In principle, the substances are not harmful , they are not poisonous and in the concentrations used are not harmful to health.
Nevertheless, they are controversial. Some are suspected of causing diarrhea in high doses or triggering allergies or pseudoallergies in sensitive people . The consumer advice centers see around 50 additives as being dangerous, especially for people with allergies or asthma. They advise against certain substances, such as the additive amaranth (E 123), an artificially produced red coloring agent that is permitted in some spirits. He is suspected of having cancer.
What “natural” flavor means
In the case of additives, consumers can still look up the name. When it comes to the taste of foods, they are delivered to the manufacturer in good faith: Around 2700 different flavorings can be used in the EU without specifying the substance. The blanket note “Aroma” is sufficient on the packaging, occasionally supplemented by the melodious addition “natural”. The terms “nature-identical” or “artificial” have not been used since January 20, 2011 according to the EU Flavor Regulation passed in 2008.
This distinction between natural and nature-identical was only a question of the raw materials anyway – both came from the laboratory: the so-called natural ones come from microbes, plants or animals. But that can – even with strawberry yoghurt – be completely different from the ones they ultimately taste like.
Fruit aromas can be obtained from molds or, in the case of strawberries, from certain woods. The term “natural” only means that the raw material comes from natural products. Artificial flavors are chemical copies of a natural taste.
And there is one more thing to consider: the components in the aroma that are responsible for the taste make up around ten to 20 percent, according to the Hamburg consumer advice center. They may also contain flavors, fillers, solvents, flavor enhancers or preservatives . Since the ingredients of the flavors do not have to be labeled, some manufacturers trick and hide unpopular additives such as preservatives or flavor enhancers. You do not have to indicate this in the list of ingredients.
Technical auxiliaries remain unnamed
Technical auxiliaries such as enzymes that are used for clarifying, separating or decolorizing during production are also not subject to labeling. In principle, they are removed after they have served their purpose. Leftovers can still get into the finished food.
For some products, no lists of ingredients are required at all, for example for wine or schnapps. Goods sold unpackaged may also go over the counter without further information, for example cheese from the fresh food counter and meat and sausage at the butcher’s. “Only certain additives have to be on a sign with their class name – without naming the additive itself,” says Armin Valet from the Hamburg Consumer Center. “An example: For a sausage from the service counter with sodium monoglutamate, the label ‘with flavor enhancer ‘ is sufficient.”
When genetic engineering is labeled
Food, ingredients or additives from genetically modified organisms must be labeled as soon as their content in a product or ingredient exceeds 0.9 percent. It does not matter whether the genetic modification can be detected in the end product or not. Examples are oil from genetically modified rapeseed or lecithin from genetically modified soybeans.
Meat, eggs or dairy products from animals that have been fed genetically modified plants, on the other hand, do not have to bear any reference to genetic engineering. The same applies to additives that are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms, for example the sweetener aspartame . The manufacturer does not have to declare such substances if no microbial components are left in the food, for example in chewing gum.
The information is vital for allergy sufferers
In the EU, ingredients that trigger allergies particularly often have had to be labeled since 2005 . This regulation initially applied to packaged goods, but has now also applied to bulk goods. Twelve product groups are affected. They are responsible for around 90 percent of allergies and intolerances : cereals containing gluten , crustaceans, eggs, fish, peanuts, soy, milk (milk protein, lactose), nuts, celery, mustard, sesame as well as sulfur dioxide and sulfites. From the end of 2008, lupins and molluscs such as snails must also be on the package.
Compound ingredients – such as a so-called fruit preparation in yoghurt – have had to be listed with all their individual components for several years, also a step forward for all hypersensitive people.
Here, however, there are again exceptions: for herbs and spice mixtures, jams, cocoa and chocolate products, fruit juices and fruit nectars or iodized salt, the legislature does not want to know exactly to this day – if these mixtures make up less than two percent in the food and none of the just mentioned Allergens are included.
However, what helps allergy sufferers and well-informed skeptics can also confuse the mass of consumers. After all, many a list of ingredients reads like a chemistry book. Manufacturers who mean well and voluntarily state more than they have to may achieve the opposite: the consumer no longer looks at it or is put off by products with long lists of ingredients.
The amount of cryptic labels on the package is no indication of how risky the contents are. Because not everything that sounds dangerous in technical jargon is by no means. Riboflavin, for example, is simply vitamin B2 . Alpha-tocopherol is the same as vitamin E .
Pasteurized or homogenized – what’s the difference?
A few easy-to-remember rules from the Food Labeling Ordinance can therefore be more helpful for orientation: The packaging must state how much is in it, who the manufacturer is, what the goods cost and how long they should at least remain edible.
Sometimes a processing method also has to be mentioned, for example with milk: Pasteurized means that it has been made durable through heat treatment. Homogenized means that the fat droplets contained are finely distributed thanks to technical assistance. The order of the list of ingredients is fixed: It is sorted according to the amount in the food. The largest is always at the beginning, the smallest at the end.
Manufacturers cheat on unpackaged food
Any ingredient list is only as good as the manufacturer who put it together. Often enough, there is cheating, especially with unpackaged goods. Colorants and preservatives are often kept secret, often in delicatessen salads. The food control department, which is responsible for correct labeling in Germany, repeatedly detects violations.
Sometimes it doesn’t say what should be on it, sometimes it says something that isn’t in it. For example, a few years ago the Hamburg food inspectors discovered that almost half of the products made from feta cheese were not made from sheep’s milk at all, but from cow’s milk. One provider was even bolder – and used analog cheese .
Particularly misleading are indications that producers use to advertise that their goods are “without preservatives “, “without flavor enhancers “, “without colorings“or” without flavorings. “In professional circles, something like this is called” clean label “, a clean label. This suggests to the consumer that he is buying a natural product – which is not the case, criticizes the Hamburg consumer organization.” Clean Label are mostly a superfluous marketing tool used by the manufacturer, “says consumer advocate Valet.” For example, some products that supposedly ‘do without preservatives’ contain acetic acid and other acidulants as ingredients. These substances also have a preservative effect. “
Another example: yeast extract is often found on the list of ingredients in products that allegedly do not contain flavor enhancers. According to the law, this is not an additive that has an E number. The industry even calls it a “natural food” that naturally contains glutamate. As with bag soups, nature is not far off: As the name suggests, the substance is made from yeast, but has little to do with the original product. In this process, the proteins are extracted from dead yeast cells – this is the extract that is used in large quantities in finished products, including organic products .