What do food labels mean?

If you feel confused about what you should be reading and believing on food labels, you aren’t alone!  Integrated Learning Therapy practitioners focus on young people so let’s see if we can offer some guidelines to steer you in the right direction regarding your children.

First of all, it is necessary to realise that labels are there for two main reasons.  They tell us the name of the food or drink that we are looking at, what ingredients it is made of, its weight and where it comes from.  They also are designed to tempt us into buying the product.  It is their job to look attractive – hence they are colourful, have appealing pictures (aimed at the children)  and try to highlight the nutritional and health credentials of the content (aimed at parents).  Unfortunately, we can’t always believe the hype on the packaging.  We simply have to be prepared to spend a few moments reading the label.

Listing ingredients

Ingredients are listed in their weight-descending order at the time the product is being prepared.  This means that the first item on the list will be present in the largest quantity, and so on.  When a product uses a variety of ingredients, such as herbs, but all in roughly the same quantity, then they can appear in any order.

Recently a friend bought a packet of Tasty Brown Onion – a 2-in-1 stew mix.  The ingredients were listed as follows: Wheat flour, maize flour, salt, flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, E631, E627), flavouring, caramel colourant (E150c), radurised herbs, potassium chloride, sugar, vegetable oil (palm fruit, TBHQ).  The nutritional information noted that, amongst other things, it contained minimal sugar but 378 mg of sodium (salt) per serving.

What do we make of this?   There aren’t any onions in it, surprisingly!  Seems like it contains only flour, flavourants, colourants and little more.  Not very helpful, but the quantity of salt needs further examination.

Children’s recommended salt intake

As adults, we shouldn’t be having more than 6 grams (6 g) of salt per day (roughly one slightly rounded teaspoon).  Children’s salt intake depends on their age, as shown below:

Children up to 6 months         1 g       1/5 teaspoon

7-12 months                           1 g       1/5 teaspoon

1-3 years                                 2 g       2/5 teaspoon

4-6 years                                 3 g       3/5 teaspoon

7-10 years                               5 g       1 teaspoon

The salt content of the stew mix is 378 mg, which is about 38% of 1 gram.  This might sound well below the daily recommended amount for older children but because it is a ‘hidden’ ingredient in the dish being prepared, it would add considerably to the actual salt intake of a child over a day’s meals and snacks. As a general rule of thumb, the amount of salt (sodium) in any processed product would be considered low (i.e. a little) if less than 40 mg of sodium  per 100 g  of the product.

Some breakfast cereals, claiming to be lower in sugar, are very high in salt.  This is done to improve the flavour of the food but doesn’t add to the health value. It’s quite common that children could be eating 30-40 percentage of the recommended daily amount of salt in a 30 g helping of cereal.

The presence of so many additives in the form of flavourants and colourants is also a red flag.  Flavour enhancers do what they say – they perk up the taste in some foods.  There are over 4 000 flavouring agents used in food, some of which are natural flavourings make some that are totally created by chemists and are not found anywhere in nature.


With the exception of flavourants, other additives carry an E number.   The idea of the E number is to identify which have been declared ‘harmless’ by the European Union. However, if evidence mounts up to indicate that the additive might not be innocent, it can have its E number removed. 

While many of us can consume many additives, some children prove to be more vulnerable to them.  Here’s a list of preservatives that are best avoided if you are buying food or drinks for your children (or, of course, for yourself), particularly if they have any health issues, including learning difficulties: 

E210    Benzoic acid

E211    Sodium benzoate

E211    Potassium benzoate

E213    Calcium benzoate

E214    Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

E215    Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt

E216    Propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

E217    Propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt

E218    Methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

E219    Methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt

E220    Sulphur dioxide

E221    Sodium dioxide

E222    Sodium hydrogen sulphite

E223    Sodium metabisulphite

E224    Potassium metabisulphite

E226    Calcium sulphite

E227    Calcium hydrogen sulphite

E230    Biphenyl

E231    2-Hydroxybiphenyl

E232    Sodium biphenyl-2-yl oxide

E233    2-(Thiazol-4-yl) benzimidazole

E239    Hexamine

E249    Potassium nitrate

E250    Sodium nitrate

E251    Sodium nitrate

E252    Potassium nitrate

And here’s a list of colourants that have been banned in many countries:

E102    Tartrazine

E104    Quinoline Yellow

E107    Yellow 2G

E110    Sunset Yellow

E120    Cochineal

E122    Carmoisine

E123    Amaranth

E124    Ponceau 4R

E127    Erthrosine

E128    Red 2G

E129    Allura Red

E131    Patent Blue V

E132    Indigo Carmine

E133    Brilliant Blue FCF

E142    Green S

E151    Black PN

E154    Brown FK

E154    Brown HT

Its really hard these days to avoid foods and drinks containing additives but it is possible to minimize intakes.

Minimising food additives

The easiest way to do this is to reduce the amount of processed foods that your family eats by going back to ‘traditional’ eating habits. Like your grandparents did, cook meat or fish or other protein source (eggs, cheese) and serve up with plenty of vegetables and fruit.  Also cut back on shop-bought cakes and biscuits.  It certainly helps to buy free range chickens, grass-fed beef and naturally raised pork.  These may carry less of a load of the probiotics and other growth hormones used to boost meat production. 

Any change you can make to your family’s diet that reduces the reliance on over-processed food, which by its nature requires lots of additives to give it form, taste, texture, colour and preservative qualities, is a step in the right direction 

Isn’t this going overboard?

Are we being ridiculous?  That’s an open question but going by the number of children whose symptoms have lessened with dietary changes, I believe that being cautious about food additives is sensible.  Regulations for baby foods are very strict.  However, after the age of 1 year, the guidelines disappear.  The reasons for the levels of salt and additives being restricted in foods for babies is because their liver and kidneys, which have to deal with detoxifying these substances, are immature and simply can’t cope.  It is hard to understand why older children are considered to have organs that suddenly can manage higher intakes.   Toddlers and older children are exposed to foods and drinks rich in sugar, salt and additives.

So the only way you can ensure that your children are eating healthily is to be aware of how easy it is to shop for foods that may be more harmful than helpful.  You simply have to be a ‘label detective’ to avoid the traps modern consumerism lays for you.



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