I want to eat right in Russia, but how do I use the labels to choose the best foods?
- I’m perfectly healthy. Why should I be reading this?
- In Russia, where on food labels can I read about this stuff?
- What else in my food can kill me?
- But it’s always better to choose products made from natural ingredients, right? They’re supposed to be healthier!
- What does it mean when foods are called “environmentally friendly” or “organic”?
- But it’s better to avoid foods with GMOs, right?
- What about vitamin-enriched products? Should I grab every one I can find?
- What if I find food that’s labeled “whole grain”? Is that good?
- Maybe I should get children’s food, instead? It’s got to be higher quality, right?
- Do I have to become fluent in all the little markings they put on food labels, like “EAS” and those little arrows?
- That’s a lot to take in. Can you tell me one more time, in a nutshell, what I should look out for?
I’m perfectly healthy. Why should I be reading this?
Even if you’re one of those healthy people without food allergies or gluten intolerance, you should be aware of the food you’re shoveling into your mouth, to ensure that your status remains tippity top.
Now, we’re not saying you need to stand there in the grocery store isles reading every last word of the fine print on every label on your food. In fact, there are just a few things you should watch out for.
- Free sugar. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “free sugar” should make up no more than 10 percent of the total calories consumed by children and adults. If you can get that down to five percent — even better. If you don’t, you risk gaining too much weight.
- Salt/sodium. The WHO recommends that adults consume no more than five grams of salt (a single teaspoon) per day, which is equivalent to two grams of sodium. The organization says adults on average eat between nine and 12 grams of salt every day. You shouldn’t cut salt out of your diet completely, but it’s important not to exceed the recommended norms: too much sodium can lead to or aggravate hypertension (high blood pressure), which in turn raises the risk of myocardial infarction, stroke, and coronary heart disease. Processed foods like bacon, cheese, and sausage are often packed with salt.
- Industrially produced trans-fatty acids. These bad boys are harmful to your cardiovascular system. Trans fats increase your cholesterol levels and put you at risk of coronary heart disease. The WHO recently published a step-by-step guide for the elimination of industrially-produced trans-fatty acids from the global food supply by 2023.
In Russia, where on food labels can I read about this stuff?
Unfortunately, food manufacturers aren’t required to report this information on labels in an easy-to-read format, like they are in the United States. And it’s important that you know about a few hidden traps, when learning about your food.
Free sugar. In Russia, manufacturers don’t have to indicate on their packaging any information about free sugar in their products. On labels that say “sugar free,” however, you can find free sugar listed under different names. “Fruit juice concentrate,” “honey,” and “fructose” are no better than “sugar.” The total carbohydrates listed on the packaging won’t tell you anything — it combines both free sugar and the necessary complex carbohydrates.
Salt. There are usually no problems with Russian packaging when it comes to salt. That’s far from true for the next category, however.
Trans fats. In Russia, manufacturers don’t have to indicate on food packaging if the product contains trans fats, so you’ll generally have to take a guess. The main ingredient responsible for delivering these cholesterol bombs are “partially hydrogenated vegetable fats.” Expect to find the most trans fats in fast food, donuts, baked goods, frozen pizza, crackers, and margarine.
What else in my food can kill me?
As long as you eat in moderation, the sugar, salt, and trans fats are really the main things out to get you. Glutamate sodium, sodium benzoate, nature-identical flavorings, and other ingredients that get a bad wrap in the media are actually quite safe. The “E” index, for example, denotes substances approved in the European Union, and there is no other secret meaning to this. You can find these substances in perfectly natural products like bananas and strawberries, as well. They’re added to many industrial foods to preserve texture and prevent bacterial contamination.
Russian regulations require food manufacturers to indicate the purpose and name or index of each ingredient. For example, if there’s citric acid in a product, the packaging might say it’s an “acidity regulator” or an “E330 acidity regulator.” To avoid such “unnatural-sounding” names, some manufacturers combine the necessary ingredient with different optional compounds in the form of an extract. This makes the process more labor-intensive and drives up the price. This is what happened with dyes: because of falling demand for synthetic products, manufacturers shifted to natural compounds, which were less stable and bright and more light sensitive. This in turn necessitated the use of additional ingredients to make up for these shortcomings.
But it’s always better to choose products made from natural ingredients, right? They’re supposed to be healthier!
Not necessarily. By and large, molecular properties don’t change after they form, so synthetic foods and natural foods shouldn’t differ significantly, if managed properly.
One exception is isomers, which do have different harmful properties. “A natural substance usually has one kind of optical isomer, but you get two in synthesis,” says Yulia Ageyeva, a chemist and the manager of Food Ingredients Department at the company BASF. “For example, with vitamin E, half of the synthetic becomes ‘ballast,’ because only half is biologically active. The same goes for certain medicines, including ibuprofen.” If necessary, you should avoid isomers with undesirable properties.
When chemical substances are synthesized, impurities can also form, “but the requirements for purity in the final form are very strict,” says Ageyeva. “A certificate of analysis for a particular batch should be within the ranges listed on the product’s general specifications. There are well-developed methods for removing impurities: distillation, sedimentation, and other procedures. The appropriate authorities have to inspect a product’s safety when it’s registered for use in a particular country or region.”
What does it mean when foods are called “environmentally friendly” or “organic”?
Russian law doesn’t define the term “environmentally friendly” and it’s illegal to include this phrase on packaging. The label “organic” means that the raw material used to make the product was obtained without the use of GMOs, ionizing radiation, mineral nitrogen fertilizers, synthetic herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, and other pesticides.
There are, however, a bunch of exceptions in Russia’s federal standards for the use of completely “chemical” compounds, so fertilizers other than manure are permitted when growing organic products. In other words, organic products aren’t necessarily grown in some small, idyllic village. More likely, they’re churned out at large farms. Additionally, research has failed to show any special benefits to organic foods.
But it’s better to avoid foods with GMOs, right?
This is literally the last thing you should worry about. The “GMO free” label on packaging doesn’t actually contain any useful information, and it only plays on consumers’ irrational fear of genetically modified products. Foods that undergo human-engineered genetic modification are subjected to exhaustive testing to determine that they are safe. The World Health Organization says this is enough.
In Russia, genetically modified foods also undergo inspection. If genetically modified ingredients make up more than 0.9 percent of a product, the manufacturer has to indicate this on the packaging. As of 2017, according to the Federal Health and Consumer Rights Agency, Russia had registered 36 genetically modified products of plant origin: 22 strains of soybean, 12 strains of corn, one strain of rice, and one genetically of beet.
What about vitamin-enriched products? Should I grab every one I can find?
It depends. On the one hand, these products can be dangerous, despite the enrichment of vitamins. For example, packaging for flaked cereal and muesli often says the food contains vitamins, but a lot of these “healthy breakfasts” contain large amounts of sugar and ingredients that lose their important properties during processing. The same goes for juices, which really can have added vitamins, but are essentially sugar water. It’s recommended that you minimize your consumption of these products.
On the other hand, added vitamins and minerals can help avoid micronutrient deficiencies. For example, eating iodized salt is a simple and cheap way to prevent iodine deficiency.
What if I find food that’s labeled “whole grain”? Is that good?
Sometimes. It is recommended that you try to consume more whole-grain products, but it’s not clear that means consumers in Russia should buy everything labeled “whole grain.” The term still isn’t regulated in Russia, so you’re better off reading the ingredients. “According to the nomenclature, dark rye flour has the coarsest, highest grain content,” writes dietitian Helen Motova. “Medium rye and white rye are in second and third place. Wheat flour in decreasing order of coarseness ranks as follows: whole wheat, dark wheat, white wheat, and straight white wheat. Whole-grain cereals include: amaranth, bulgur, buckwheat, millet, rye, bread-corn, corn, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, spelt, oat, and barley oats.
Maybe I should get children’s food, instead? It’s got to be higher quality, right?
These foods differ somewhat, but either way it doesn’t make sense for adults to eat children’s food. “There are stricter requirements for children’s products, especially when it comes to microbiological safety: children a more vulnerable to pathogenic microorganisms,” explains Helen Motova. “The macronutrient composition of these products is important; they are enriched with iron and vitamins to meet the needs of a growing body. Puréed baby foods can have different degrees of grinding that adults don’t need. Parents are advised against adding salt to children’s food before they turn one. You shouldn’t add any sugar until the child is at least two. Children’s snacks also include soluble cookies and other similar products, as it’s important to avoid choking hazards.”
Do I have to become fluent in all the little markings they put on food labels, like “EAS” and those little arrows?
Don’t sweat it. Basically, these are technical designations meant to give you a little useful information. There are also environmental labels that come in handy only sometimes. The “EAC” label means the product can be sold anywhere in the Eurasian Economic Union.
That’s a lot to take in. Can you tell me one more time, in a nutshell, what I should look out for?
Sure thing. Pay special attention to the following:
- The salt/sodium content
- The different kinds of sugars (the ingredients are listed in descending order of quantity)
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable fats
- As far as whole grain goes, try to stick to rye flour wheat flour, brown or wild rice, and other whole grains
And try to ignore all the bright, shiny labels bragging about naturalness, vitaminization, and the absence of GMOs: they’re not telling you anything useful.
Meduza's editors thank the experts at the World Health Organization’s European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases; Helen Motova, nutritionist and author of the blog “Dietetics for All: Foundations, Ideas, and Contradictions”; Yulia Ageyeva, chemist and manager of the Food Ingredients Department at the company BASF; and Sergey Belkov, flavorist for the Kerry Group.