Secret Ingredients

What do food labels reveal and, more importantly, what do they hide?

January 9, 2013

When it comes to understanding product labels, even the savviest consumer can veer off-track. A degree in molecular biology won’t help, because many of the worrisome additives and processes remain undisclosed.

Two years ago, before becoming a mother, I was a picky but confident food shopper. Once my daughter was born, I began to question the nebulous ingredients in industrial food. What are “natural flavors”? Does baby formula contain genetically modified ingredients?


The answers jolted me out of complacency, transforming me into an obsessive label analyst. While buying organic seems a safe bet, I’ve learned that even organic products contain secret ingredients, and often you have to look beyond the label. Here are five offenders.

Natural flavor
While the term natural implies something untouched by man, natural flavors differ little from their artificial cousins. They are both synthesized in laboratories, often using hexane, a toxic component of gasoline. The FDA doesn’t require labeling of trace ingredients, so the sources remain a mystery to consumers.

Some natural flavors are innocuous ingredients like spice and tamarind extracts. A less appetizing example is castoreum, or excretions from a gland near the back end of a beaver. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is another surprising component of many organic foods. This flavor-enhancer, linked to obesity and behavioral disorders, sometimes hides on labels in ingredients such as “yeast extract” or “soy protein isolate.”

Artificial color
Petroleum-derived synthetic food dyes are commonly used to make foods and beverages appear attractive and healthful. The FDA requires manufacturers to list synthetic color additives, such as Blue 2 or Yellow 6, by name in ingredient lists, as well as two allergenic colorings, carmine and cochineal extract, which are made from insects. But other colorings may be listed as “artificial color,” “color added,” or similar terms. Artificial colors have been blamed for contributing to hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder and for being carcinogenic. The Center for Science in the Public Interest stated in a 2010 report that many food colorings haven’t been properly tested for safety, yet are widely used and undisclosed.


Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
Found in nearly 80 percent of American processed food, GMOs are produced when genes from one plant or animal are inserted into another plant or animal to create desirable traits. Nearly 90 percent of conventionally grown corn, canola, soybean, and sugar beet crops have been genetically modified. Add to that dairy from cows treated with the genetically engineered hormone rBGH, and meat and eggs from animals fed genetically modified feed

GMOs haven’t been tested for long-term safety, and short-term studies have indicated serious concerns related to infertility and immune problems. To sidestep GMOs, buy produce, dairy, and meats with the “USDA Organic” label; avoid most processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup; and look for the “Non-GMO Project Verified” seal

Flavor packs
Engineered from synthesized peel, pulp, and orange essences, flavor packs are used to reinvigorate pasteurized orange juice after it has been stored for up to a year in de-aerated tanks. For more than 30 years, manufacturers have used packs to infuse juice with flavor lost during storage. But due to an FDA labeling loophole, you may still read “100 percent pure and natural” on the label. Formulas for flavor packs are proprietary, giving consumers little or no insight into what they’re drinking. Some organic juices, including Uncle Matt’s, are flavor-pack-free.

Bisphenol A (BPA)
A plastic-hardener used in food can liners, plastic bottles, and cash-register receipts, BPA has been linked to increased rates of heart disease, cancer, and sexual dysfunction; it poses added risks to children. Several companies, including Native Forest, Natural Factor, and Eden Organic, have begun to phase out BPA-lined cans.

In March 2012, the FDA rejected a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council calling for a BPA ban, ruling that “there is not compelling scientific evidence to justify new restrictions.” Meanwhile, nearly all Americans have traces of BPA in their urine.

I still struggle when walking down the supermarket aisles, but by shopping at my local farmers’ markets, choosing organic, and bypassing heavily processed food, I feel good about what I’m feeding my family. I also look to the following resources for guidance on decoding labels and making smart choices: