Secret Ingredients

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

By Natalya Murakhver


Food labels help consumers make healthy choices. But too often they fail to note potentially harmful additives.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.