When we talk about food additives, it is important to understand their functioning, and, more importantly, what it does to our bodies and how our bodies react to it. Before that, it is important to understand the dynamics of the digestive system.
The human digestive system is far too complex than one could think of. Everything begins with the mouth where the food is ingested and after a plethora of complex mechanisms, digestion is complete when the pancreatic enzymes help the small intestine absorb the requisite nutrients and let the rest pass through as faeces.
The primary function of the stomach is to break large proteins into smaller blocks of proteins called peptides and peptones. Likewise, the intestines are responsible for absorption of essential nutrients from the food. If proteins, fats and carbohydrates (sugars) are not reduced to smaller absorbable components inside the body, the small intestine would not be able to absorb essential nutrients (macronutrients such as carbohydrates and fats and micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals). Very few nutrients, except water, is absorbed by the large intestine (colon).
Carbs (sugars) are the primary source of energy and one among the three essential nutrients (carbs, protein, fats) in our diet. Complex sugars are broken down to simpler sugars before being absorbed by the small intestine.
Undigested sugars remain in the intestine, which is then fermented by the bacteria normally present in the large intestine. These bacteria produce gas, cramps and flatulence among other things as symptoms of the inability of the digestive system to break down carbohydrates owing to lack of specific enzymes.
Now that we’ve understood the natural process, let’s move on to why it’s important to read the label at the back of the ready-to-cook food packet or the masala packet to understand the chemicals we consume in addition to what is normally required in our diets.
Now, additives are chemical substances which do not normally get categorised as food, but are added purposefully with natural food to alter the taste and effect of the foodstuff to perform in a competitive market. They are legal substances.
Additives have been tested and certified safe by global bodies concerned after assessing the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). The ADI is an accepted form of chemical risk/intake based on which additives are approved as safe for consumption and are identified by code numbers on product labels. The catch, however, is that none of the manufacturers are required to disclose the proportions of additives used in the product — and at times this makes it extremely difficult to assess whether a product is safe for a child or a pregnant woman.
Understanding labels is important when using fermented pastes, artificial sweeteners, salts, flavour enhancers, etc. to assess if it is safe to ingest this chemical compound. This is why I feel that reading the back labels of products should become a more natural thing among the public.
The contents inside a product are as important to the body as the finished product. How the product is made is also important to understand in terms of checking for allergy warnings, etc. The conditions in which the product was manufactured also vary from place to place and, therefore, the place of manufacturing and respective product label guidelines are to be checked.
The motive behind using additives, preservatives, flavour enhancers, etc. are purely commercial, and it drastically alters the economics in the products it is used. The food and beverage industry thrives on saving cost and constantly aims at further improving product shelf life and longevity. This could be a reason why it is excruciatingly tricky for the consumer to crack the code in the ‘Ingredient’ section on labels.
The proof of the pudding is always in the eating, and it is the taste receptors that play a crucial role in accepting food into the system. Ayurveda identifies six tastes: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent and Astringent. In other systems, Pungent and Astringent are replaced by an unidentified taste called Umami.
Umami And Soy Sauce
Today, umami is that elusive flavour everyone is after, which camouflages itself somewhere between salt and sugar. Tapping umami to improve flavours has been prevalent since the late 19th century, and this has paved the way for a spike in the demand for flavour enhancers to make every dish taste perfect. One of the most easily identifiable sources of umami is soy sauce.
Traditionally, soy sauce is created using just four ingredients: soybeans, wheat (refined flour), salt and water. A koji starter is used to initiate fermentation of the soy beans in the process of extraction that takes anywhere from 18 to 36 months.
High demand for soy sauce in the restaurant business and culinary space has meant that cheaper varieties of the sauce can be manufactured through acid hydrolysis in just seven days! The flip side of this quick fix is that cheaper soy sauce can contain carcinogens and other harmful ingredients for the body.
From one salt to another; monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Also known as excitotoxin, it stimulates the brain and some reports suggest that it also alters the hormonal balance in the body, making it a super addictive. Prolonged consumption of MSG from an early age encourages children to eat more such types of food — here the flavour enhancers do the trick and it renders normal non-MSG foods bland.
Although MSG is legal and safe to consume as it does not pose any imminent danger, most manufacturers choose to fashionably identify MSG on product labels as hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP). Over the years, MSG has got a bad reputation, and its rebranding as HVP would be to avoid this inconvenience.
Two additional additive codes one can find in most products that contain MSG is disodium inosinate (E631) and disodium guanylate (E627), which are other addictive salt derivatives.
Indian household cooking heavily depends on commercially produced masala packets. While most of them come with an expiry date and a warning as to storing in an air tight container once opened, hardly any manufacturer mentions the use of anticaking agents to prevent clumping in masala powders. In other words, the free flow of the masala from its packet, even months after it was opened, is thanks to these anticaking agents. Have you noticed a silica gel pouch in new water bottles, or new shoes? This gel is made of the same silicon dioxide (551) that is also an anticaking agent.
‘Sugar Free’ or ‘Zero Added Sugar’ might not actually be healthy and some even report its adverse effects on pregnant women with pre-conditions. Some of the sugar-free products do come with the warning that the artificial sweetener used (Aspartame) is not safe for children. Nevertheless, many do not have such warnings, and this makes it all the more imperative to read food labels to understand what sweetener is used as a substitute for sugar.
Most of these ingredients are legal — it’s a different matter whether they are healthy, and even if they are, at what quantities are they safe? In our quest for tastier food and easy cooking options we must not overlook the safety of what we put on the table. It’s important to be informed consumers.
Remember, the warning is on the label, and the choice is ours.