Count Chemicals Not Calories.

How many of us understand food labels? Can we even pronounce some of the ingredients listed on food labels?  How many of us go shopping and look only at the calorie count of the food before deciding whether to buy it?

You know the label I mean, something like this:

And if we’re lucky, the packaging has something on the front with the ‘traffic light’ system –  to quickly tell us if there is too much fat, saturated fat, sugar or salt in the product.  Useful, right?

Well actually….no!

Foods that appear “healthy” according to the label, in terms of those macronutrients above (i.e. protein, carbs and fat) are actually missing the point – because when it comes to factory-made foods, there is one important thing you should be looking for and that is the ingredients list!!

That’s what this article is about – counting the chemicals in the ingredients list.  Why? Because this is what can drastically affect our future health.  And while it would be great if this article persuades you not to eat factory-made food, I’d settle for changing the calorie-checking habit to an ingredient-checking habit!

What do I mean “chemicals”?

As you’ll know from our ‘Detox? or Not-to-Tox series’ the human body has an amazing capacity to rid itself of unwanted substances.  Unfortunately, this ability is now being tested to the limits by the number and level of chemicals it needs to dispose of.  And if that’s not enough, it’s also impeded by the lack of nutrition that these fake ‘filler-foods’ displace from our diet.

Now, before anyone comments on everything, technically, being a chemical (and words like ‘chemical’ and ‘toxic’ are massively overused, I appreciate). Let me be clear – by ‘chemical’ I mean a substance that has been artificially prepared or purified and then added to our food for a specific purpose.  These substances are added to:

  • Extend the shelf life – Foods are made to sit on a shelf for YEARS; they are so lifeless that even bacteria and yeasts don’t want to eat them!  Is it any wonder that they are bad for us? Many people are allergic to sulphites, used to preserve foods and yet they are still commonplace.
  • Improve the appearance – I don’t know about you, but I don’t want the food industry to cover up food that has lost its natural colour, or put gums in to replace lost texture.  Our senses evolved to tell us if foods were good to eat and if we confuse them by making food look ‘fresh’ or ‘appetising’, then we can’t trust our natural instincts around these types of foods.
  • Reduce the energy value – the world’s obsession with dieting is probably one of the most harmful influences heaped upon us to date.  Not only are we dealing with chemicals related to processing food, but also those that are included to replace actual food. People are obsessed with low calorie ‘treats’ and its felt this is a good thing due to widespread obesity.  But these ‘treats’ are nutritionally worthless, so if it’s not feeding and nourishing us, then why eat it?  And, clearly, these foods have not stopped the obesity crisis – sweeteners such as aspartame are widely used in place of sugar (parents check your kid’s bottle of squash) and, despite claims of their safety, there is enough doubt and good research evidence around to warrant excluding them in favour of traditional sweet foods (like fruit juice, maple syrup, honey and sugar).
  • Increase the nutritional value – synthetic vitamins, with not even close to the benefits of the real thing, are added back into food to make up for processing losses.  For example, white flour has iron, calcium, thiamine and niacin added back in to prevent severe deficiencies in people who eat too much of these products.  But with more and more of us being diagnosed with diseases related to iron overload – is this hidden iron such a good idea?

Why does it matter? They are checked by the authorities aren’t they?

Unfortunately, while there is legislation to protect us from out-and-out toxic exposure to chemicals, lower levels of chemical adulteration are allowed.  Why?  One reason is because the FSA (Food Standards Agency) deem that, under a certain threshold, these chemicals do no harm.  But, more importantly for food manufacturers, without these chemicals many of the thousands of products in your local supermarket would spoil and look awful long before you even got to consider buying them!

Ever heard of ‘E’ numbers?  The term doesn’t make you think healthy food does it?  An E number is a chemical that has been approved as an additive in the European Union. Here are some more reasons why you might not want to take the FSA’s word that food products are safe for your long-term health and well-being….

Onus is on the food provider

According to the UK government website:

“Food businesses are responsible for ensuring their food is safe, and that it complies with legislation on food additives and rules on reducing or eliminating human health risks caused by contaminants.”

So the primary onus is on the food producer, with the FSA (Food Standards Agency) doing their inspections and verification through local authorities as a second call (if at all!).   Clearly no food manufacturer sets out to harm human health.  However, let’s face it, their ultimate priority (and responsibility) is to return shareholder value and to make profit.  So if there’s no precedence of a chemical food additive causing harm, then they are going to use it.  Additionally, consider that food manufacturers reputations have been dented in recent years as they don’t exactly follow the rules – horsemeat anyone?  So if local authorities aren’t able to carry out regular (or thorough) checking … what does this mean for the food products?  Could banned chemicals or chemicals at improper levels sneak in? Well, the FSA’s own website alert system  would seem to imply so!

No-one is checking your cumulative intake

The “dose makes the poison” so they say.  We know that the levels of food additives is low and the average daily intake, per kilogram of consumer, is taken into account.  But how do we take account of combining lots of food additives from different products?  And how about hidden pesticide exposure (glyphosate anyone?) and chemicals from your home/work/beauty regime, pollution from the road? No-one is checking our cumulative intake of all these many thousands of chemicals.  Certainly charities like believe that chemical exposure from these many sources combined can increase your cancer risk.

The effects of chemicals on the microbiome (gut bacteria) are largely unknown

The leading edge of science is only just learning about the 100 trillion bugs (our gut flora) we have in our gut, but we already know that they are very important for our health.  What hasn’t been tested fully is how these metabolise food chemicals that survive human digestion.  Food ’emulsifiers’ in particular have been found to disrupt gut bacteria in mice – changing healthy mice to obese and diseased creatures through consuming these food additives.  Hmmm… interesting and also troubling isn’t it?

People are showing outward signs of chemical build up in their bodies

No-one can deny we are becoming an unhealthy bunch in the UK; our disease rates are rocketing and the NHS cannot keep up.  More people than ever before are suffering from heart disease, obesity, diabetes, arthritis and a host of chronic diseases of modern life.  Long story short, if you are ill, or on your way to becoming ill, then the ability of your liver to function will have been compromised to some degree.  Chemical exposure and inadequate nutrition from processed factory-food is implicated at every turn.

Experts warn us to eat ‘healthier’ but at the same time tell us to eat less and focus on our weight disproportionately as a measure of health.   A whole industry of ‘health’ foods has been created, that compel us to eat them because they are ‘heart-healthy’ or will ‘lower cholesterol’ or have absolutely ‘no fat’ or ‘sugar free’.

These food products are likely the worst of all and we urge you to look at the ingredients. Not sure what exactly to look out for?  I’ll cover that in the next section. 

What ingredients should you avoid?

It would take a complete book to give you a complete list of additives that you probably should avoid, so here is a brief summary of the worst of them. In truth, anything you don’t recognise as food is worth avoiding!

The top ten additives to avoid are:

  1. Food Colourings: A scientific study in 2007 linked certain artificial colourings and the preservative sodium benzoate to increased hyperactivity in some children. The colourings have not been banned in the UK (although they are in some other countries) but foods containing them must carry a warning. The colours are: sunset yellow (E110), quinoline yellow (E104), carmoisine (E122), allura red (E129), tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124). The US Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSIP), a non-profit consumer watchdog, also suggests limiting or avoiding colas and other drinks containing caramel colouring E150c (ammonia caramel) due to studies linking the additive with cancer in mice and rats.
  2. Sodium benzoate (E211) – used in pharmaceuticals, fireworks and also as a food preservative. The Food Standards Agency says studies have linked the additive to hyperactive behaviour in children, and the CSIP claims it may cause hives, asthma or other allergic reactions in some people.
  3. Sodium nitrite (E250) – used as a preservative, colouring and flavouring in some bacon, processed meat and smoked foods. The CSIP recommends avoiding this additive as there is some evidence linking it to cancer – however there is more recent evidence that nitrites can be protective!
  4. Propyl gallate (E310) – an antioxidant preservative found in vegetable oils, meat products, and chewing gum. The CSIP recommends avoiding this additive, claiming it needs further research after cancer studies in rats produced conflicting results.
  5. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) E320 – an antioxidant that prevents oils going rancid and used in some cereals, crisps and chewing gum. The CSIP says that while some studies indicate it is safe, other research shows a link to cancer in rats, mice and hamsters and should be avoided.
  6. Carrageenan (E407) – derived from red seaweed and used as a thickener and stabilizer in a variety of processed foods, as well as in shampoo, cosmetic creams and pet food. It has been linked to ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer and experts say it safety needs further investigation.
  7. Aspartame (E951) – an artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar, found in a wide range of processed food, from soft drinks to condiments. It was recently re-evaluated and deemed safe by the FSA, but the CSIP says it should be avoided, pointing to three independent studies linking it to cancer in rodents, and a further study linking it to increased risk of cancer in men.
  8. Acesulfame-potassium (E950) – an artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar, found in a range of processed food, from soft drinks to tabletop sweeteners. The CSIP suggests avoiding this additive, as safety tests conducted in the US in the 1970s were ‘mediocre’. It has urged the Food and Drug Administration to order manufacturers to carry out better studies or withdraw approval for use.
  9. Cyclamic acid (E952) – used in the production of paints and plastics, its sodium and calcium salts are used as artificial sweeteners. The additive has been banned in the US since 1970 after animal studies linking its use to cancer. Revised studies suggest it doesn’t cause cancer directly but can increase the potency of other carcinogens.
  10. Trans fats – linked to high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke, but still widely used in some baked and fried food. Avoid labels that mention hydrogenated fat, partially hydrogenated fat, semi hydrogenated fat or shortening.

If you want to know more then this website dedicated to educating people about E numbers is very informative.

So what do I recommend?

  1. Read the ingredients list on the label! The ingredients are listed in order of quantity. If it has additives or chemical sounding names you don’t recognise, then don’t buy it.
  2. And wherever you can, avoid food with labels i.e. made in a factory!

I don’t kid myself that all chemicals are ‘bad’ and that everything natural is ‘good’ but the world has been overrun with chronic disease.  It comes down to two factors: mal-nutrition and inability to detoxify chemicals from our environment (with the biggest exposure coming from the ones we are innocently throwing down our gullet).

But wait… what about the chemicals used in processing that aren’t even on the label?! Well that’s a story for another day…. if you can’t wait then read Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence.

The take-home is that we need to pay careful attention to what we choose to eat if we want a long and healthy life – nobody is making us put that ready-made ‘rustic’ pizza into your trolley!

Choose to eat better.  Cook at home, cook from scratch, cook whole foods, from better suppliers, from better animals, who live on better plants that grow in better soil and better fruit and veg that are grown in better soil.  This is the key to being truly healthy!

By the way – cooking from scratch is becoming a ‘forgotten skill’ and is intimidating for many. But it’s NOT rocket science  – but keep an eye on this blog and Facebook and you’ll pick up some tips on how to make it work in modern life.

In the meantime, if what you’ve read here has raised issues for you, or someone you have shared with, please feel free to contact me for a chat.

Food, Health & Lifestyle Coaching for Women


Izabella Natrins

I'm here to inspire and support women at midlife and beyond to re-ignite purpose and meaning to take back control of their health and create the radical, resilient heath they want and deserve. As a whole-health expert with over 30 years experience in the field, a qualified Health and Wellness Coach and Ballymaloe-trained nutritional chef, my real food nutrition and lifestyle medicine programmes support women fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight gain, sleep, energy and niggling or multiple diagnosed health issues. As an advocate for real food nutrition, regenerative agriculture and whole-health, my book 'The Real Food Solution' is an evidence-based treasury wisdom for energy, vitality and better health for people and planet and a call to action to change the way we grown, source and cook our food. As the CEO at The UK Health Coaches Association, I'm proud to continue the task of leading the first professional association for Health and Wellness Coaches in the world and the gold standard for the UK and Ireland.

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1 Response

  1. June 23, 2019

    […] conscious of the sneaky-clever ‘health’ marketing banners on the front of the label and the zillion-in-small-print ingredients on the back.  And know this: what you don’t know about food manufacturing processes, […]

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