What Are Upcycled Foods?

An estimated 30% of the global food supply is thrown away annually. Not only is this wasteful, it’s neither sustainable nor good for the environment. As a result, many food and beverage stakeholders are taking steps to support a more sustainable and less wasteful food supply.  

This means you may have begun to see phrases like “upcycled foods” more when reading online or while shopping at grocery stores. But what does “upcycled” mean? According to the Upcycled Food Association (UFA), “upcycled food is about reducing food waste by creating high quality, nutritious food products out of the nutrients that slip through the cracks of our food system.”  

Taking it a step further, the Upcycled Foods Definition Task Force published a summary paper in the Spring of 2020 further defining the phrase:  

“Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains and have a positive impact on the environment.”  

Upcycled Foods Definition Task Force

This means that upcycled foods are:

  1. Made from by-products or ingredients that would have otherwise gone to waste. 
  1. Value-added products. 
  1. Safe for human consumption, but can also be used in animal feed, pet food, and cosmetics. 
  1. Have an auditable supply chain that ensures they are truly helping to reduce waste without putting added stress on the environment. 
How does this apply to food additives? 

Believe it or not, some additives that are commonly found in food and beverages are already upcycled ingredients. Take pectin for instance. The main sources of pectins are the rinds of citrus fruit, apple pomace (the main by-product of the apple juice industry) and sugar beet pulp. These otherwise wasted food processing components are used to help improve the texture of jams and jellies. 

Another example is glycerol ester of wood rosin (GEWR). GEWR is harvested from the stumps of pine trees cut down for other uses such as papermaking or as building lumber. GEWR is used as a stabilizer in fruit-based beverages and chewing gum. 

A couple other examples include lecithin (often sourced as a by-product of vegetable oil production) and yeast extract (which can be produced using the by-products of corn, sugar beet and sugar cane used to make molasses). 

How do I know if the food I’m buying is upcycled? 

Foods that are upcycled will indicate so on their packaging. One way they may do so is using a new certification standard and label established by the UFA. The first iteration of this standard sets a framework for the certification of upcycled ingredients and products. 

Ultimately, by upcycling by-products that would have otherwise been thrown away, food & beverage manufacturers are aiding the environment by decreasing waste and creating a more sustainable food supply. 

The Role of Food Additives in Ensuring Healthy Meals

white food plate with fork and knife on blue background

In late 2020, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services published the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). The DGAs are published every five years and contain science-based recommendations that help drive food and nutrition policy. This time around, they included recommendations for pregnant women, infants, and young children (the B-24 population), guidance on reducing sugar, sodium and saturated fat intake, and suggestions to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into everyday diets.

With a hurting economy as a result of COVID-19, many families and individuals are experiencing challenges in meeting their daily nutritional needs. While food additives may be better known for enhancing the taste, texture, freshness, and appearance of foods – they are also critical in ensuring many food products meet federal nutrition recommendations for these same reasons – and at a more affordable cost. This is especially important in a time where many have limited access to grocery stores or markets, whether as a voluntary safety precaution or due to geographic location.

How do food additives help us meet nutrition recommendations?

COVID has not only affected our finances and how we shop, it’s also resulted in huge shifts in our eating habits – with 85% of all consumers reporting changes to how, and what, they eat since the pandemic began. One of the most prominent changes is a renewed focus on health and immunity, as many Americans are increasingly seeking healthier food choices – making the role of food additives even more valuable.

One way food additives can help improve nutrition is extending the shelf life of canned fruits and vegetables. Common ingredients such as salt and vinegar, as well as food additives like citric acid, are used to preserve canned foods, and as an added bonus these products are less expensive than fresh fruit and vegetables. Another food additive, mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids, is used as a coating agent for fresh fruits and vegetables and preserves product quality during transportation and storage. Phosphates contain naturally occurring phosphorus, a mineral that is essential to bone development, and are used to help fortify and leaven bread and baked goods.

Do food additives make it affordable to eat healthy?

Harvard’s School of Public Health reports that eating a healthy diet is more expensive than an unhealthy one. While the absence or presence of food additives doesn’t necessarily make a food more or less healthy, the versatility of food additives contribute to improved shelf-life and stability while enhancing the nutrient profile and being more affordable.

Another important consideration is dietary restrictions and social/personal food decisions. Food ingredients such as konjac gum, a hydrocolloid used to help stabilize dairy products and prevent the development of ice crystals, is also a U.S> Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-recognized source of dietary fiber. This dietary fiber assists with satiety, intestinal health, and cholesterol levels, and may not be present in each consumer’s daily diet otherwise. Other examples include ascorbyl palmitate, which may be used as a source of vitamin C; and yeast extract, a source of vitamin B-12; which is important for those who are pregnant and can sometimes be lacking in plant-based foods.

The benefits of food additives to health and nutrition through food consumption are diverse. Several additives, including pectin or carob bean gum, are FDA approved as recognized sources of dietary fiber and can provide beneficial effects such as improved digestion and the feeling of satiety. Other ingredients, like carrageenan, can be used as replacement agents – replacing the sodium in lunch foods or fats, oils, and sugar in sweet treats, for example. Food additives like citric acid can also be used in products that revitalize skin, soothe sore throats, and curb nausea.

Food additives also contribute to consumer nutrition in how they accommodate diverse dietary preferences and needs. For example, xanthan gum and guar gum are used in gluten-free baking to help bind and thicken ingredients, making gluten-free foods more easily attainable for professional and at-home bakers. Plant-based products and diets, which have seen increased interest during COVID, are also aided by food additives such as yeast extract – which contribute to enhancing the flavors, texture and nutritional value of plant-based meat alternatives.

It is important that we all have access to nutritional, healthy foods without having to worry as much about cost, food spoilage, or availability. Food additives, through their versatility in purpose and function, make nutritional, affordable foods a reality – playing a vital role in helping us achieve healthier lifestyle through balanced, nutritional diets.

To learn about the different kinds of food ingredients, and how they bolster nutrition, the environment, the food supply, and more, visit our Types and Sources pages.

What Is “Processed” Food?‎

The phrase “processed food” is often mischaracterized as something people should avoid. This mischaracterization has unfortunately become too common and accepted by too many. When used to describe food, the word “processed” means a product that has been changed by being prepared, canned, frozen, packaged, or combined with other ingredients. Processed foods can undergo physical changes including chopping, mixing, baking, or frying, as well as chemical changes which can include fermentation, leavening, and preservation.

Examples of Processed Foods

Using this definition, “processed” describes many of the foods that help make up a balanced diet such as yogurt, sauces, low-fat cheese, and cut fruit. The food you cook from scratch can be described as processed.

Take a loaf of homemade sourdough bread for instance. To start, you need a sourdough starter, made by fermenting flour and water. From there you add more flour and some salt, followed by several rounds of proofing (leavening through fermentation), kneading, and folding. Before you even put the bread in the oven, you’ve made both chemical and physical changes to the ingredients that you started with – water, flour, and salt. By then, baking your dough in the oven you’ve once again changed your dough by adding heat.

But do you think of your fresh homemade sourdough as being processed? Likely not.

Or what about the dried pasta you may have stocked in your pantry at the onset of COVID-19? Similar to your homemade sourdough, the ingredients for the pasta – flour, salt, water, oil, and eggs – were mixed together in a large-scale mixer, pressed through a pasta dye, dried, and boxed so that you could buy it from your local store and keep it in your pantry until you need it.

The level of processing that a food product goes through isn’t always telling of nutrient levels and doesn’t have a direct association with the quality of a food product. Processed foods have gone through one or more changes before reaching the store shelf, and are typically designed to produce a food that is tasty, affordable, shelf-stable, and easy to access.

What Is the Role of Food Additives in Processed Foods?

Food additives are used in processed foods for many reasons, including to improve texture and stability, increase shelf-life, and enhance flavor. Food additives can be used for one or more reasons depending on the type of ingredient and the desired functionality in the processed food.

Food ingredients, including food additives, have been used in foods for hundreds of years for those same reasons. All ingredients listed on food labels are approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or have been determined to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by qualified experts after a review of the scientific evidence supporting their safety and intended use in foods.

What Does This Mean About the Food I Eat?

At the end of the day, processed foods, whether packaged, canned, jarred, or frozen, are an important part of the American diet, allowing us to buy foods that are more affordable, have longer shelf lives, and reduce preparation time. Food additives also help make the wide selection of tasty organic, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and other diet-specific food options possible.

Processed foods are can be part of a balanced diet and shouldn’t be thought of as something to fear. When it comes to a balanced diet, it’s about eating nutritious foods, not necessarily monitoring the processing level of the foods you eat.

Shelf Stability: More Important Now Than Ever

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we shop for almost everything, but perhaps nothing more than the normal weekly or even daily trips to the grocery store. At the height of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggested that all Americans purchase enough food to last for two weeks at a time in order to keep grocery stores from becoming packed, decrease risk of individual exposure, and to ensure an adequate food supply at home. It’s therefore no surprise that consumers have been stocking up on more packaged and shelf-stable food products to minimize trips to the grocery store.

Recently, 47% of consumers reported stocking up on essential items like food and water. As the pandemic continues into its eighth month, with many restrictions still in place, food conservation and shelf stability is even more important.

How Do Food Additives Help With Shelf-Stability?

Shelf-life, according to the Institute of Food Science and Technology, is “the period of time during which the food product will remain safe; be certain to retain its desired sensory, chemical, physical microbiological, and functional characteristics; where appropriate, comply with any label declaration of nutritional data, when stored under the recommended conditions.”

Food ingredients, including food additives, play key roles in increasing the shelf lives of many foods, making them even more important when stocking up on foods that will last during the pandemic. Many food additives help boost the stability and quality of food products, allowing us to store them in our homes and pantries for longer periods of time – which leads to fewer trips to the grocery store, improved cost, reduced food waste, and more.

What Types of Food Additives Help With Shelf-Stability?

One type of food additive that can improve shelf life is preservatives. Preservatives are added to foods to keep them fresh and safe for consumption – preventing spoilage or rotting. Common preservatives include salts, sugars, gelatin and vinegars; which are used to prevent bacteria growth. Additives, such as nisin and trisodium phosphate, may also be used to help preserve foods.

Another type of food additive that helps with shelf stability, antioxidants, help to decrease oxidation in foods. Citric acid and lecithin are common additives with an antioxidant function.

Emulsifiers, thickeners, firming agents, and stabilizers are used to help extend shelf life. These additives also improve the appearance, texture, and quality of products over time. Stabilizers, for example, help ingredients within a product to stay dispersed, maintaining the intended and desirable composition. Firming agents, on the other hand, help keep fruits and vegetables firm and crisp.

Food Additives + Shelf-Stability = Stronger Food Supply

All of these different types of additives help foster a safer, more sustainable, and more affordable food supply. Without them, we would have to make more frequent grocery trips, spend more money on food, and throw away food that would spoil too quickly. Shelf life is an important characteristic of healthy, affordable food products, and additives are an important part of making them so. Additives, and the effects they have on shelf life, are what make logistics of the current food supply possible.

While shelf life, and the role additives have in improving it, has always been important to our food supply – it is more important now than it ever has been. With COVID-related restrictions still in place around the world, and with a need to limit human contact as much as possible, it is important that we can purchase foods that will last longer.

Food Label Misconceptions

In the modern food supply, most products – including those that are vegan, organic, and pantry staples, have lists of ingredients on their labels. The purpose of these lists, which are required by law, is to provide consumers with information regarding the ingredients contained in the product. Although all food ingredients must be proven safe, some are hard to pronounce or sound weird which can seem confusing or even frightening to consumers. Especially if a product has a food label with a long list of ingredients that have unfamiliar or scientific names. It’s completely fine to dislike or to avoid any food product due to dietary needs or personal preference, however there’s no need to avoid foods due to a fear of ingredient lists.

Everything is a Chemical

The idea of food additives, which are also referred to as chemicals in food, may sound odd to some – however the truth is that, when it comes to food products, everything is a chemical. Water, air, and food, including food additives, are all made up of chemicals. Some chemicals in food are naturally-occurring while others are manmade. Chemicals are abundant even in simple, healthy, everyday foods like bananas – which contain over 50 chemical compounds. However, the presence or absence of chemicals in a food product does not make the product any more or less “natural”, “artificial”, healthy, or safe; and as a matter of fact, some natural foods are more chemically complicated than foods a consumer might view as manufactured or processed.

Ingredients added to food are regulated by national authorities, which study the science to ensure they are safe for their intended use. When food products have long lists containing numerous scientific ingredients and/or additives, it represents nothing about the health or safety of the food, but rather shows how structurally complex they are.

It is understandable that consumers may be confused or intimidated by long and chemical-sounding ingredient lists on food labels, but a little more info and insight can quickly help remove this confusion. For example, due to FDA regulation that requires ingredient lists to include all sub-ingredients, a commonly known ingredient like “baking powder” must legally be shown as “baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, and cornstarch)”. Because of FDA regulations, and the inherent complexity of foods, labels are left packed with what can feel like dozens of scientific ingredient names; and consumers should know that there is no need to fear or avoid these products and ingredients. In fact, the inclusion of some food additives such as emulsifiers and humectants can help keep an ingredient list shorter in a food product.

Check out this 2-minute YouTube video, “Chemicals in Food,” that explains how everything, including the food we eat, is made up of chemicals.

The Benefits of Food Science

Food additives, with their sometimes long scientific names and all, should be embraced by consumers because they play important roles in foods. Additives can help enhance a food’s nutritional value, improve texture and enhance shelf life, make foods more convenient, and help ensure a healthier, more sustainable, and more efficient food supply. Food additives contribute to everything that consumers love about food; taste, texture, appearance, health benefits, convenience, and more – and there is no reason to misunderstand or be afraid by ingredient names.

What are Clean Labels?

“Clean label” is a term made popular by consumers and refers to products that are made with as few ingredients as possible. In many cases, this is to dispel some of the previously mentioned misconceptions and fears about food additives. These are products that often use common, easily identified, and trustworthy ingredients in an effort to make consumers feel, whether justly or not, more comfortable with their foods.

The issue with “clean labels,” and the term, is that it doesn’t really speak to the science or safety of food products. The truth of the matter is that food labels, including those with long lists of scientific names, are clean and safe themselves; and to get rid of these naturally-occurring, supportive ingredients and additives only serves to reduce taste, convenience, shelf-life, and overall food efficiency.

To better understand food labels, ingredient lists, FDA regulations, and more, check out IFAC’s “Understanding Food Labels.”

Food Additives: Supporting Food Affordability

Food additives play a number of important roles in the production, distribution, storage, and availability of food and beverage products. Most food additives serve multiple functions, many of which help create a more efficient and streamlined food supply. For example, food gums are used to help stabilize and thicken food products, which in turn prevents spoilage and extends shelf-life, ultimately reducing food waste. But the benefits don’t stop there. Improved shelf-life also positively impacts the cost and convenience of food – for consumers and for the food industry.

Consumer Affordability & Convenience

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, the average American spends just under 10% of their disposable income on food. For those with lower income, food can represent up to 35% of their total pay. With those numbers in mind, it’s incredibly important that consumers get the most out of what they buy which means that much of the food they purchase needs to remain fresh as long as possible to avoid it from going bad before it is consumed. Foods with a longer shelf-life don’t need to be rushed to the store for immediate purchase and consumption, and many do not need to be refrigerated or frozen to stay fresh. As a result, these foods tend to be less expensive and consumers can spend less to get more and keep their pantry full. Food additives enable families to enjoy safe and nutritious diets while not being financially weighed down by food expenses.

Food additives also provide vitamins, essential nutrients, and more which helps consumers reach sufficient nutritional levels without having to spend extra money. For instance, carrageenan is used to stabilize liquid infant formula, preventing separation of important vitamins and minerals and ensuring consistent nutrient delivery. Monocalcium phosphate is a source of both calcium and phosphorus in baked goods, which helps strengthen bones and cells. Cellulose gum is considered a source of dietary fiber, which has been identified as a nutrient concern because it is underconsumed, so can be added to foods to help consumers improve their fiber intake and fill the “fiber gap”.

Affordability in the Supply Chain

On a national and global scale, additives make food more affordable to produce, and the production and distribution of food more efficient. Because they extend shelf-life, food manufacturers don’t have to take on a heavier burden of moving product as soon as it is produced or in some cases refrigerating product, which lowers production, storage, and transportation costs. Without food additives, the production and distribution of food would need to change to adjust to more limited shelf life. This would result in more costs to produce food, which would trickle down to the prices we pay at the store.

Not only do food additives improve the taste, quality and texture of our food and drinks, they also improve the cost of food by ensuring that products maintain their value for longer periods of time, benefitting producers, distributors, retailers, and consumers.

A More Sustainable, Affordable Food Market

Food additives make food products, and thus the food supply, safer, more sustainable, and more affordable. The qualities of various food additives help make dollars go farther by supporting and maintaining food value.

In addition, additives make the process of buying, selling, and storing food more convenient for all. Without them, families and individuals would be spending more time, and money, making frequent grocery store visits to avoid food spoilage. Aside from the convenience it provides to our wallets and routines, food additives also make sufficient dietary and nutritional intake more convenient in an affordable, reliable, and easy way.

A More Sustainable Food Supply: How Food Additives Help

Even in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, research has found that consumers are still highly interested in sustainability. In fact, a substantial 83% of U.S. consumers take environmental impact into account when purchasing food products – indicative of the rising trend of sustainability over the past decade. With the global population steadily climbing towards an estimated 9.6 billion by the year 2050, equating to an additional 75 million people each year needing food, it may seem challenging to produce food in a manner that doesn’t negatively affect the environment. But with a better understanding of food additives and their contributions to sustainability, the goal of providing a sufficient amount of food while trimming excess and preventing waste becomes more realistic.

Food ingredients – more specifically food additives – are used to enhance the flavor, texture, appearance, and other key qualities of food. But what you may not know is that sustainability is an integral element to their purpose and function. Food additives help to keep our food supply sustainable by preserving food to keep it fresh and edible for extended periods of time, bolstering plant-based products and diets, and enhancing overall food production, distribution, packaging, and storage. Food additives also help support sustainability by contributing to food availability, nutrition delivery, affordability, and convenience while supporting the growth and development of domestic and global economies.

How Do food Additives Bolster Sustainability?

Every year, around one-third of all food produced on earth (over 1 billion tons) goes to waste. Not only does this squander resources, but it accounts for between 8-10% of emissions contributing to the global carbon footprint, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Food additives are a crucial element to reducing food waste and loss. Throughout history, certain ingredients have been used as a means of preserving food products to prevent them from spoiling – demonstrating how the purpose of food additives is inherently anti-food waste. Additives are necessary in guaranteeing consistent quality as food products travel from farms, factories, retailers, and ultimately to the plate. Food additives also contribute to food safety. By helping to ensure food safety and quality, food additives are a crucial element in maintaining and enhancing a sustainable food supply.

How Do Food Additives Enhance Food Production & Distribution?

Food additives support sustainability by enhancing the longevity and safety of food products. Whether produced from natural sources or synthesized under safe and regulated conditions, many additives serve to maintain a product’s freshness or prevent causes of spoilage like extreme temperatures and lights, microorganisms, or chemicals. Not only do additives help to prevent food from going bad, they also can enhance taste and appearance. 

Many food additives are designed with the purpose of extending a product’s shelf life by, in one way or another, preserving the integrity and quality of a product. Depending on the food product, the use of additives can substantially extend shelf life by preventing oxidation, inhibiting decay, rot, or mold, and more. In these instances, food additives allow products to maintain original form for longer periods of time with no drop-off in safety, health, or taste.

Food products travel long distances before ending up in your fridge, passing through farms, factories, retailers, and more before being purchased – additives that prevent early food expiration help protect the integrity, safety, and quality of food throughout this process.

How Do Food Additives Contribute to Sustainable, Plant-Based Products and Diets?

Plant-based food ingredients directly bolster environmental sustainability by supporting the growing plant-based food market. Many consumers are incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets as a healthier lifestyle change that also better supports the environment, with a full quarter of 25-34 year old Americans now saying they are vegans or vegetarians. These ingredients do not require the use of any animals in their production, and thus evade the resulting emissions from animal farming, digestive gas from animals, storage and production associated with animals, and more. Plant-based diets and products are chosen by many for their inherent positive effect on the environmental footprint of individuals and food supplies. In addition, many food ingredients also contribute to the rich, savory and umami flavors of plant-based products that have drawn in many consumers who are looking for flavorful plant-based meat-alternatives.

As it currently stands, food additives support sustainability in the supply chain and in food production through maintaining and reducing the amount of food that is wasted on a daily, monthly, and annual basis.  As plant-based food trends continue to rise concurrently with sustainability concerns, food ingredients will continue to contribute to environmental sustainability through their incorporation within this growing market of food products. Technologies and innovations surrounding food additives will continue to develop and expand as time passes to better support and accommodate a sustainable food supply and future.

Why Food Ingredients Are Especially Important During COVID-19

Currently the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and many are social distancing in an effort to stay healthy and help to stop the spread of the virus. As a result, many are purchasing food supplies intended to last for two to four weeks in order to avoid having to go to the store on a regular basis.

The International Food Additives Council wants to remind consumers that the safety and quality of the global food supply remains strong and that food additives continue to play an important role in maintaining the quality of foods in your pantry. Food additives help ensure food products remain shelf-stable, extend product shelf life, and allow consumers to stock up on food products without fear of immediate expiration. For more information on the different types of food ingredients and food additives, click here.

During this time, when consumers want to minimize their time in the store and may wish to stock up on food, packaged foods containing food additives are an excellent option. In addition to contributing to taste, texture, freshness, and appearance of food, food additives contribute to product stability and shelf life. Below are several important food additive classifications and how they contribute to product stability.


Preservatives help extend the life of foods and prevent spoilage. Preservatives also help foods maintain their appearance, taste, and texture. Preservatives are found in a variety of foods including jellies, cereals, oils, and baked goods.

Preservatives come in many forms. For example, sugar, salt, and vinegar are often used to delay the growth of bacteria in foods. Antioxidants help reduce oxidation in foods, increasing shelf life and preventing spoilage. And phosphates are used to help preserve processed meat and poultry products.

Emulsifiers, Stabilizers, and Thickeners

Emulsifiers, Stabilizers, and Thickeners are common food additives and help maintain the appearance of foods while preserving freshness and quality.

  • Emulsifiers help to prevent oil and water mixtures from separating within a product and are found in a variety of foods, including margarine, ice cream, bread, chocolate, and some processed meats. Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids are a common example of an emulsifier that disperses fat in foods to allow it to become more water-soluble. They can also help reduce food waste by keeping foods mixed.
  • Stabilizers help ingredients stay dispersed and suspended in a product solution. Stabilizers are commonly used in beverages – such as fruit and vegetable juices – as well as liquid infant formula. Some common stabilizers include gellan gum and carrageenan.
  • Thickeners enhance the texture of foods and can give low fat or reduced calorie foods the texture of full fat/calorie options. Xanthan gum is a common thickener and can even be purchased in grocery stores.

Firming Agents

Firming agents help foods maintain their crisp quality and strength. They are also commonly used to help prolong shelf life. Firming agents are used in a variety of foods including canned meats, pickles, fruits, and vegetables. Sodium citrate, also known as citric acid, is a common firming agent derived from citrus fruit.

A ‘How to’ Guide to The Ingredient List

There has been quite a lot of discussion in the United States (U.S.) surrounding the new Nutrition Facts Label (NFL), especially given the January 1, 2020 deadline for large companies to update their products’ packaging. However, perhaps just as important as being able to read the nutrients provided by a food or beverage is understanding all of the ingredients inside.

The U.S. government requires disclosure of all ingredients contained in packaged foods and beverages via a highly-regulated ingredient list placed below the NFL. So, while some may complain that they “don’t know what is in their food,” when it comes to packaged foods and beverages, the problem is rarely that the ingredients aren’t listed. Rather, the issue lies in a lack of understanding of how to read and interpret the ingredient list.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains a database of over 3,000 different food ingredients, known as the “Substances Added to Food” inventory. That is a ton of ingredients to keep track of, even for the most savvy food connoisseur! These ingredients are added to improve the taste, texture, appearance of foods and beverages. Importantly, they can also improve safety, for example indirect additives that prevent food packaging components from leaching into the product, as well as enhance the nutritional value of products.

While we’ve previously tackled how best to assess a label for nutrients like calories, carbohydrates, fat and sodium, the ingredient list can also offer great insight into a product – if you know how to read it. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you interpret the next ingredient you find yourself curious about.

Starting from the Top

Food manufacturers must display every ingredient used in a product on the ingredients list. Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the most prevalent ingredient in the food, and ending with the least prevalent. For example, an ingredients list for popcorn might read “Corn, Vegetable Oil, Salt.” Corn is used in the greatest amount and therefore is listed first, followed by oil and then salt, which is used in the least amount. Another point to consider is that some ingredients may be grouped together, such as “natural flavors” and “artificial colors.”

Understanding Ingredients

When in doubt, look it up! While a long, Latin-derived word can look intimidating, taking a few seconds to research the ingredient will most likely simplify it. As noted by the FDA “Every food we eat – whether a just-picked strawberry or a homemade cookie – is made up of chemical compounds that determine flavor, color, texture and nutrient value.” So while the word ascorbic acid may look odd, it is simply the scientific term for vitamin C.

Putting Length into Context

The length of an ingredient list doesn’t necessarily determine the healthfulness of foods! The FDA requires that the ingredient list includes all sub-ingredients that are used to make a single ingredient. For example, baking powder would show up on an ingredient list as: baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch). Imagine how long an ingredient list for a whole grain baked item would be! By law, nutrient-dense products with a combination of ingredients and flavors are obligated to include long, scientifically-accurate ingredient lists.

Fortified or Enriched

On grain products such as cereals, breads, or corn grits, you may find a collection of ingredients following the phrase “Vitamins & Minerals.” These ingredients are referred to in the nutrition world as “micronutrients” and include vitamins A, C, D and E, magnesium, zinc, niacin and calcium. Micronutrients have been added to foods since 1924, when the mineral iodine was added to salt to prevent goiter. Following the success of iodized salt, the FDA instituted several other fortification mandates meant to enhance the nutrition of foods and prevent widespread malnutrition. One of FDA’s most successful fortification requirements has been the addition of folic acid to grain and cereal products since 1998, which has been shown to protect against instances of birth defects to the brain, spine and spinal cord. This mandate led to a 25% reduction in neural tube defects between 1995 – 1996 and 1999 – 2000 (CDC).

Have more questions about U.S. food labels? Learn more about the new Nutrition Facts Label here!

A Moving Target – The Search for “Healthy” Food in America

As the debate rages on about which diets are best and how we should shop for food, there is one thing most Americans agree on – we all want to make healthier choices. However, a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) reveals the universal quest for healthy choices is proving to seem more like a game of Where’s Waldo, as many consumers struggle to identify which foods and beverages can be deemed “healthy.”

According to the survey, conducted in October 2018 with over 1,000 American consumers ages 18-80, 95% of respondents reported they “always or sometimes” look for healthy options while grocery shopping. When asked how consumers evaluate the healthfulness of food, a majority of respondents reported first consulting the Nutrition Facts panel followed by checking the ingredient list and then searching for front-of-pack information, such as the AHA’s ‘Heart-Check’ mark and the Grocery Manufacturers Association’s (GMA) ‘Facts Up Front’ label. Further, as noted by NPR, some consumers rely more heavily on queues from environmentally minded and socially conscious icons, such as those that denote whether the animal-derived product is grass-fed. Despite fully evaluating the labeling on packaged foods, only 28% of Americans found it easy to identify and find healthy options, revealing a “gap between consumers’ desire to find information about healthy foods and their ability to do so.”

The disparity between consumer demand for healthier options and lack of consumer understanding of how to identify such foods and beverages highlights the importance of conducting consumer research prior to and in conjunction with modernizing labeling rules. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized the difficulty for consumers to identify healthy options.

As covered in a previous IFAC post, FDA introduced the updated Nutrition Facts label in 2016 to more clearly identify helpful nutrition and serving size information for consumers in the hope of encouraging more informed and healthful dietary choices. More recently in March of 2018, the FDA announced their Nutrition Innovation Strategy (NIS). Through this initiative, FDA intends to conduct a comprehensive review and update of current nutrition and food labeling regulations to make them more helpful to the average consumer. While the NIS is still in the early stages of development, the agency has outlined key strategies that will help to simplify healthy eating. A summary of these changes, which are intended to help Americans better identify, and therefore make healthier options, include the following:

Modernizing Claims

The FDA will work to define “healthy,” establish the criteria necessary to use this claim and consider developing an icon to help consumers better identify healthy choices.

Modernizing Ingredient Labels

As consumers demand more pared-down ingredient lists, the FDA is suggesting simpler names for select ingredients, such as using Vitamin C for “ascorbic acid.”

Modernizing Standards of Identity

While innovations within the food industry allow for enhanced products and more choices, unfamiliar products or ingredients may lead to consumer confusion. The FDA plans to set stricter standards for classifying certain standardized food products such as bread, jam, juices, and chocolate.

Implementing the Nutrition Facts Label and Menu Labeling

With the advent of the first major change to the Nutrition Facts label (NFL) in 20 years, FDA plans to support the adoption of the new (NFL) label and menu-labeling requirements, along with a campaign geared towards consumers to understand how to use the new NFL.

Reducing Sodium

As excess sodium has been found to lead to high blood pressure, the Agency is continuing its efforts to reduce sodium intake, a public health action meant to greatly prevent the rate of heart attack and stroke.

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