I wonder how many of us really know what we are eating these days? I mean looking at the ingredient labels is like trying to read a foreign language these days. Where did these food ingredients even come from? Are we really sure they are edible? For example, who would have thought that some chocolate donuts contain beef fat. Or that some bread has human hair as one of its ingredients.
Many of us have diet restrictions, either due to religious reasons, personal choice, or for health reasons. A vegetarian cannot eat meat based foods, a Muslim cannot eat pork or meats which were not slaughtered in the more humane manner based in Islamic law, a Jew is to eat only Kosher items and someone with a restricted diet (milk free for example) may have other items they need to avoid. Often times these items are disguised in the form of a by product listed as an ingredient with a name that you may have heard in chemistry or Latin classes.
I have done a bit of research into some of the food ingredients and I would like to share with you some of the things I have learned and tell you about the top three culprits that I have found.
First of all, the less processed the food is, the more likely it will be pure. In other words, if you pick up a pear, you know that no machine has added or taken away anything. And the more the food is processed (for example an entire meal ready in a box) the more chance the manufacturer has done something to the food, which may be objectionable to you.
A common ingredient found in an innumerable quantity of processed foods are mono and/or di glycerides. It used to be very common that these ingredients would come from an animal source. However, with passing time and complaints from many consumers and consumer groups, these are now mostly derived from vegetable sources. A good way to double check: Something with mono and diglycerides from an animal source will most likely have cholesterol in it, whereas, coming from a vegetable, the cholesterol will most likely be 0% (In the case of chocolate donuts however they also contain egg yolk, which puts the cholesterol back in). This is a very good rule of thumb, however, you can always contact the manufacturer to be certain of a particular food favorite in your household. Another good indicator is a Kosher symbol of U (especially) or K, as most Kosher items with ingredients will not have animal sources, though this is not guaranteed.
Another very common ingredient is whey. Whey is milk based, so anyone on a milk free diet should be very careful with this ingredient. Whey is basically derived from liquid milk when making cheese. The liquid (whey) separates from the firmer material (curds). The curds is used to make cheese and the whey is used in a great variety of products. Whey can be derived two different ways. One way is to insert some sort of acid (usually citric acid – the kind from citrus fruits like oranges, etc.) into the milk and let the curds separate from the whey. This type of whey is called sour whey. It is animal free, except of course, for the actual milk (for which the animal was not slaughtered). The second type of whey comes from injecting enzymes into the milk to separate the curds from the whey. These enzymes can be from animal, vegetable or microbial (synthetic) sources. Most common in America today is microbial, with the least common being animal source; however, most manufacturers have a hard enough time telling you whether the whey is sweet or sour, let alone if the sweet is derived from animal, vegetable or microbial sources. But it is understood that if your child’s favorite food has whey listed as an ingredient, it is definitely worth your while to call the manufacturer and truly push the issue with them to tell you what the source is.
Finally the last ingredient that I have found to be very common are enzymes. Enzymes can again be from three sources, animal, vegetable or microbial. You will usually find enzymes when it comes to cheese and sometimes bread. Bread, I have learned, is almost always made with microbial enzymes. Cheese can truly be a dangerous item, because, even if you allow yourself milk, cheese can be made with animal enzymes, it can be made with animal rennet, you just never know with cheese. For the most part, cheese is made with microbial enzymes, though a lot of imported expensive cheeses are still made with animal enzymes. The rennet can usually cause a problem, as sometimes the rennet is from the lining of a pig’s stomach. I have also heard of cheese being aged within the tissue from animal’s innards. My best advice when it comes to cheese is to find a good organic store, or a grocery store, where the buyers are rather educated and aware of the different ingredients and manufacturing means (for example, like a Trader Joe’s store) and research your favorite cheese there. I have found Trader Joe’s to be very good in this regard. They even have pamphlets you can take with you, listing all of their cheeses and what type of rennet was used to make the cheese.
There are countless other suspect ingredients such as L-cystine (which is made from human hair) and magnesium stearate (which can be made from pigs or other animals). There has also been talk of MSG being derived from animal sources.
Your best strategy to avoid hidden animal ingredients, is to read your labels, and do your own research on those processed foods which your family does not want to do without. I hope the above items will help you in this regard. Let me leave you with some additional tips, when it comes to dealing with food manufacturers.
1) Know exactly what you want to ask. In other words, if you see whey and enzymes listed, ask them if the whey is sweet or sour, if sweet – from what source, and if the enzymes are vegetable, animal or microbial.
2) Do not let the manufacturer try to act dumb with you.
3) Do not let the manufacturer try to tell you that “I think it should be fine”. You also think it should be fine, but this is your daughter’s favorite food, and you want to be absolutely sure it is okay. And they have a whole team of researchers and food scientists who know or can find out exactly where the ingredients came from.
4) Make the manufacturer put it in writing. Have the manufacturer put the claim of animal free into the form of a letter. That way you can be assured that what “John or Susie” customer service representative is telling you, is actually the bonafide truth.