Doc Smo: Today’s pedcast features child food expert Dr. Charlotte Rouchouze. Long time listeners to Portable Practical Pediatrics will recognize that name. She has been a guest on my show many times. She is also the force behind an excellent food blog called “The Children’s Table”. Recently I talked to Dr. Rouchouze about a topic that many parents and myself find confusing; how to read and understand a food labels. Artificial versus natural flavorings, this preservative or that preservative, artificial colors and sweeteners are among the things readers of food labels need to begin to understand. I thought my listeners might enjoy an opportunity to improve their food IQ with an expert like Dr. Rouchouze to guide them so don’t go anywhere, here comes Dr. Rouchouze.
Why is important to learn to read food labels?
Doc Smo: Why is it important for parents to know how to read and understand food labels?
Let me just say I am the biggest proponent you will find of making food yourself, for a whole variety of reasons, but I am also very suspicious of terms like “unnatural” and “toxic” that are tossed around in the organic food world. Anyone who has ever tried to define “natural”, whether it be in the area of people, plants, food, chemicals, or anything else, knows that it is often a maddening endeavor. Just the other day, I was engaging in a fruitless debate with someone on a parenting blog about whether petroleum jelly was “natural” and whether that even had any relevance whatsoever. It’s unnatural! She said. Well, it’s derived from petroleum, which is natural, right? I said. (I like to stir the pot!) Does that mean it’s safe? No! Does that mean it’s bad? No!
So when I read, on that same blog, an article about Target setting a goal to eliminate artificial ingredients from the children’s food at their stores, my ears perked up. When food companies use the term natural, what does it really mean? To be clear, I VERY MUCH in favor of food companies eliminating ingredients we know to be harmful, such as transfat. But this is a bit hazier. So lets take a look at some artificial food additives and see what we find.
To be clear: any food additive that is present in packaged food has the FDA’s general stamp of approval called GRAS (generally recognized as safe). This is a given. At the same time, any food additive will undoubtedly also have a rabid base of detractors in self-help books and on natural lifestyle sites. Making sense of all of this is not easy. So let’s take a look.
Nitrates/Nitrites: it’s unclear whether nitrate-free has any meaning, considering the celery seed they use is also high in nitrites. “Natural” perhaps, but whether that means better is still a question. Consume cured meats, and that includes sliced turkey, with moderation since there is some evidence that nitrates can be carcinogenic.
*What about sodium benzoate?
Safe but to be avoided- GRAS
Natural versus Artificial Flavor:
First there’s the question of natural vs. artificial flavors. I know that the last time I browsed the baby food section of my grocery store (which was last week), almost every mainstream product on the shelf contained “flavors.” I’m always wondering why the banana puree that it is supposed to contain doesn’t provide the banana flavor, but alas, most products do contain what they call flavors. Look no further than the Gerber Graduates products on the Target website, and see that all of them include flavors. I especially like the description of the Gerber Yogurt Melts, which states on the package that it is “naturally flavored with other natural flavors.” Ha! That sounds awfully complicated for something so natural! With the term “natural” flavors, people assume it just comes naturally from the food, but natural flavors are compounds isolated by food scientists from a wide variety of sources, and are not that much different from artificial flavors. They merely come from different sources. ‘Natural apple flavors’ doesn’t mean that the flavor came from an apple, because the chemical compound that is the apple flavor can be found in other natural sources.
MSG is a similar story. It is merely an isolated flavor compound that is chemically the same as any number of flavorful foods such as tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms. And lets be clear, MSG is in all packaged foods in some form or other. Yeast extract, hydrolyzed yeast, textured soy protein, soy sauce, etc. There is certainly ongoing debate in the natural foods community but not in the scientific community as far as I know.
Take away: Do artificial flavors need to be avoided for health reasons? Probably not. Are they worse than “natural flavors”? Probably not. Is there a chance your kid’s “naturally flavored” applesauce will taste like green apple laffy taffy? Absolutely. In my humble opinion, do they indicate a somewhat lower quality product? Yes. And if you want to train your baby’s palate to appreciate the true, natural flavors of foods, should you prefer products that don’t say “natural flavors”? I’d say yes.
These can be related to hyperactivity in some children. Makes sense to avoid (in products other than candy or birthday cake…) Often replaced with “natural” colors.
*The great debate continues
In my opinion, these should be avoided in children altogether although the FDA insists they are safe. Natural products like stevia are probably not harmful, but still unnecessary. Go for products, such as applesauce or yogurt, that say “unsweetened” rather than “sugar-free”, which often means there are sugar substitutes such as aspartame or sucralose. This is also a way of avoiding the ubiquitous HFCS (high fructose corn syrups) that people will probably be arguing about for another decade. You can always add your own dollop of honey or sugar.
Doc Smo-How should parents of American children use food labels in their shopping decisions?
- The easiest advice to follow is to cook from raw, whole ingredients whenever possible. Food companies, even when they do remove “chemical” ingredients, generally add natural equivalents that are basically identical, cost more, and are sometimes less thoroughly tested. They do this in order to boost flavor or color of a highly processed food or in order to preserve the food. So the only real wat around this is to make your own food. Rather than purchase ready-made baby food, find simple techniques for making homemade. Why buy banana puree when you can mash a banana in 15 seconds with a fork? Save money, packaging, and no worries about additives.
- If not, buy products with the shortest list of ingredients.
- Buy the highest quality foods you can afford. If the organic version is within reach, go for it. Often they cut out junk ingredients in the organic version.
- It’s also important to read carefully when a product says that it is reduced in fat or sugar, because often they make up for the lack of flavor and texture with artificial thickeners, sweeteners and other ingredients. (carrageenan, sucralose, aspartame, etc)
- Don’t microwave in plastic.
- Prefer frozen over canned – cans in themselves can contain certain chemicals that can leach into the food
Well, as always, thanks for tuning into this edition of portable Practical Pediatrics and a special thanks to Dr. Rouchouze for sharing her expertise with us. If you are interested in all things food, make sure to check out Dr. Rouchouze excellent blog, https://thechildrenstable.com/
You’ll be glad you did. This is Doc Smo, hoping you can get the very best food, for your brood. Until next time.
Here are some general references about food processing and additives for those that are interested:
-Excellent chart of food additives and their uses