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Friday, December 23, 2011

The things in your food!

This week I decided I would change the tone of the usual pitch of the blog to address a topic which seems to be interesting for many people. Even if we all have our very own preferences and beliefs when it comes to our food choices, most of us look for good quality options.

Unfortunately, food quality is a very elusive concept as it is often confused with consumer preference. While food quality is influenced to some extent by consumers' preference, food quality involves much more variables which may be invisible for most of us. Such factors include the processes used to stabilize the product and extend its shelf life, the additives, ingredients, and nutrients which might be added to give the product certain properties.  All these, however must be always reported on the product's label. Knowing how to read a label will shed some light on the product's quality giving a very broad idea of everything that is behind the product.

The purpose of this post is to offer some guidance on how to read a label, and to inform about some tricks that companies use to praise their products.

Even if regulations regarding food products and their labeling vary from country to country, they share many similarities. Most of them include a list of ingredients (which might offer more or less information), and a nutrition facts table as well as all the information regarding the producing company, the net content, the alcohol content, the expiry date, and the batch number.

The nutrition facts table must always include the portion size, the amount of portions per package, and the energetic content of the portion (also known as calories [kcal]).
Nutrition Facts Label, taken from
If you are someone who is concerned about his energy intake, you can pay attention to the size of the portion you are eating and make a ball-park estimate on the amount of calories. For example, any given chocolate usually contains around 500 kcal for every 100g, and you ate just a couple of pieces of the whole 100g bar. You do not need to weight what you ate, just approximate it! Let's say those pieces weight at most 10g, that means you ate 50 kcal. The number of calories is calculated differently in every country, but it depends on the amount of carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins in the product, the rule of thumb goes like this:
1 g carbs = 4 kcal
1g protein = 4 kcal
1 g fat = 9 kcal
1 g alcohol = 7 kcal 

Carbs are found in almost every food product and are usually given in Total Carbohydrates which is divided into Sugars and Fiber. Sugars are the simplest type of carbs and are used mostly as sweeteners. Sugars include fructose, glucose, and the standard sugar that you put into your coffee. Sugars are very important for the body as they are the first source of energy. The cells in the brain can only use sugars in order to survive. A no-carb diet will only damage your brain, and put your body into stress, however it is a fact that most of us consume much more sugars than what we actually need. Fiber is a generic term for all the carbs (and other substances) that are not absorbed in the guts, but are great for asisting the food along their transit through the intestines. It has been proven that people who have fiber rich diets have healthier lives! Still, most people do not eat enough fiber. Vegetables and whole cereals contain quite a lot of fiber. The difference between the sum of sugars and fibers and Total Carbohydrates include all the rest of the carbs which the body can absorb and breakdown into simple sugars. Some carbs like starch can be used as thickening agents, and some of them can even form firm gels.

Protein is found mainly in products of animal origin, cereals, and some other vegetables. Protein deficiencies are often quite harmful and might even be deadly. Proteins are chains of smaller components called aminoacids. The body does not absorb the whole protein, it first breaks it down into it's smaller components. The body uses these aminoacids to build up new proteins such as certain hormones, muscles, antibodies, and other stuff. Proteins vary in nutritional value depending on which and how many of the 20 different aminoacids they have. Only under extreme situations such as famine, does the body use protein as a source of energy. In order to confer certain properties, sometimes protein is added into a product. Some proteins can help to create a stable foamy product like ice cream, a firm gel like gelatin or even to mix oil and water.

We have grown to believe that fats are the bad guys, however this is far from truth. While the excessive consumption of fats is definitely going to cause severe damage on the long run, fat deprivation can result on a very painful dead. The truth is that the body uses fats for everything, cell membranes are composed by fats, the lungs absorb oxigen through a fatty layer, many hormones are fats, and still there is myriad of other uses. Fat is also an energy reservoir, once the carbs are gone, the body will start using the fat deposits in the body. When the energetic needs of the body are all covered,  the excess of sugars will be converted into fats. Most of the fat deposits in the body come from sugar excess! Fats are found in animal products, nuts, some cereals, and two fruit (olives, and avocado). In food, fats tend to give lots of beneficial sensory traits. Fat improves texture, mouthfeel, and flavor. There are many products used to immitate the effect of fat in the food, however there has not been a single product that can reproduce all the sensory experience given by fats yet!! When a product is rich in fats, you will usually find in the ingredients label some antioxidants which will prevent fats from decaying and forming rancid flavors.

Among all the many nasty effects of alcohol, there is still another downside which still remains unknown: is almost as "fattening" as fats themselves! Alcohol calories sometimes are called empty calories because the body ends up transforming most of the alcohol it into fats without giving it any use. Just to give you an idea of how caloric alcohol is, when you drink one glass of whiskey, it is as if you were eating a sandwich, two glasses of whiskey are the same as eating a little bit more than a LARGE Lindtt chocolate bar completely, while every glass of vodka is a slice of white bread!! (See the source in spanish)

Something else you might find written in the Nutritional Facts Label is the vitamin and mineral content. Minerals do not have any caloric input but are necessary for the body. The most common mineral in food is sodium that comes from salt. The excessive consumption of salts lead to many problems which derive from high blood pressure. Just as with the sugar, most of us consume much more salt than needed! Vitamins are a very diverse group of substances which assist the body in many metabolic processes. They are classified into Vitamin A, group B, C, group D, group E, and group K. Vitamins of the group B, and C are non toxic as the excess will end up in your toilet, however excessive consumption of vitamins A, D, E and K can be quite harmful as they can accumulate in the body. 
Next to the content of any of the aforementioned components is the percentage of the daily intake. This number will tell you how much of the total daily amount of any of these ingredients you have consumed in that portion. Let's say you ate something that had 5 g of component X, and that is 20% of the daily intake. That means you still have to eat 25 g of component X during the day in order to reach the optimal 100%.

Maybe the most important part of a label is the ingredients label. Here you will find every ingredient added into the product in decreasing order, all the ingredients at the beginning are the most important, while the ones at the end are in a very small proportion. Some ingredients are compound, and in some places it is not necessary to disclose their composition.

I hope this has given a good insight on the things that are contained in your foods. Soon I might post something related with the ingredients label.
Have a great time :)

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