Category Archives: ingredient science
For some reason I really enjoy making visual graphs from data, something which can give new insight into relationships hidden in the data.
I decided to apply this hobby of mine to ice cream, and came with the above graph. It shows calories on the horizontal axis, and sugars (in grams) on the vertical one. Numbers are measured against a single serving, which is typically 1/2 cup.
I have captured data for around 50 products across 7 different brands, and highlighted some of the points on the graph.
As expected, there is a general correlation between calories and sugar, since adding more sugar usually means adding more calories. However there are some cases like Haagen Dazs Peanut Butter Pecan, which has a lot of fat that contributes to calories, but not sugar. We also see the other extreme, Talenti Lisbon Lemon, where the main ingredients (besides water) are lemon and sugar, both which contribute to sugar but not to calories.
So let’s get back to the original question: Does it make sense to give Spirulina to the children of the Fukushima accident as a means to treat ailments caused by long term radiation exposure?
As with most important questions, things are not black and white so I’ll rephrase this into a few sub questions and discuss each in turn.
Q: If a Spirulina producer offered to donate a large bundle of Spirulina to the children of Fukushima, would that be a good idea?
A: Yes, assuming a third party verifies there are no contaminants in the spirulina being donated. I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact Spirulina has alot of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and I haven’t read about any known side effects.
Q: If someone has money and wants to donate it to the children of Fukushima, is purchasing Spirulina and sending it the best use of these funds?
A: No, based on the limited studies I have researched which only give inconclusive evidence for Spirulina’s efficacy against radiation-induced ailments, I think this would not be the best way to spend your money. While it is true spirulina has a good amount of protein by weight, you may remember the U.S. National Library of Medicine quote that stated its protein quality is no better than meat or milk, and yet can cost 30 times as much. Because of this high markup (with spirulina being a so-called “super food”), it is not a cost effective way to supply protein.
I would recommend instead focusing on things that will more likely have a positive effect for a reasonable price – food, shelter, and in some cases relocation. There are even programs which send these children on a short term field trip to northern Japan where they radiation level is much lower and they can safely play outside (see here).
Q: Isn’t there some other way Spirulina producers can help?
Rather than just donating spirulina, I recommend spirulina producers, the government, as well as unbiased third parties, work together to establish programs where groups of children are given spirulina in a controlled environment and the effects of spirulina can be observed. If the results come out positive the group size can be ramped up and many children’s lives may be improved. If the studies don’t show major improvements little is lost.
Also, some research could be done into more cost-effective ways of producing spirulina. The cheaper it can be made, the more likely it will be used as a nutritional supplement, especially for those in need.
I’m always open to new information and interpretations of existing information, so please feel free to leave any comments and we can discuss. I also welcome references to any important studies I missed.
1. I generally use only photos taken personally, but for this article I used a spirulina photograph taken from Wikimedia Commons, which was released into the public domain.
2. I am not promoting and spirulina supplier, any such ads you see on this page have been put there by WordPress (Yes, I need to upgrade my account).
3. I haven’t put many references inline in the text so if you want to quickly know where I got some information feel free to leave a comment. All the references I used are below but it may be tedious to search through them for a specific fact.
1.Loseva, L.P. and Dardynskaya, I.V. Spirulina- natural sorbent of radionucleides. Research Institute of Radiation Medicine, Minsk, Belarus. 6th Intl Congress of Applied Algology, Czech Republic, Sep. 9, 1993.
2. Belookaya, T. Corres. from Chairman of Byelorussian Committee “Children of Chernobyl” May 31, 1991.
3. Evets, P. et. al. Means to normalize the levels of immunoglobulin E, using the food supplement spirulina. Grodenski State Medical Univ. Russian Fed Comm Patents and Trade. Patent (19)RU (11)2005486. Jan. 15, 1994.
This is the second part of a special series of posts on spirulina. See the first post here. The full set of references will be saved to the last post which will be available within a week.
I was able to find only a few studies quoted which gave good indication Spirulina might be of use to children in Japan. One of these was done in 1993 and is titled “Spirulina – natural sorbent of radionucleides” This study is very important because it involves treatment of children in Belarus, who suffered from the effects of the Chernobyl disaster. The children were given 5 grams a day of spirulina and in 20 days radiation levels in their urine decreased 50%. Specifically, “Use of spirulina decreases radioaction dose load received from food contaminated with radionuclides, Cesium-137 and Strontium-90.”
On the surface this is an amazing result and looks like Spirulina has real potential in treating radiation-induced sickness. However I have many questions about this study:
1) Was there any other metric of health recorded in addition to radiation levels?
2) What happened to these children a month later, or a year later?
3) Did the radiation levels return to normal after stopping spirulina?
4) Were any other medicines or placebos given to the children? In particular, were other less expensive nutritional sources tested in parallel?
I searched for the full papers on PubMed, a site that indexes more than 23 million citations from biomedical literature, but could not find any of them. I also had someone help me search for the full paper on several other databases, including LexusNexus Academic and MedScape, but no luck there. I am not saying this paper doesn’t exist, but until I see details I cannot say on how strong evidence this paper gives for Spirulina’s efficacy. Dr. Belay, the CTO of Earthrise (a major producer of spiralina), told me in an email communication that only the abstract of this study was published.
There is another study from 1994 which is also of interest: “Means to normalize the levels of immunoglobulin E, using the food supplement Spirulina.” This study involved 35 preschool children living in highly radioactive areas who were given 5 grams of Spirulina day for 6 weeks. At the end of this period, Immunoglobulin E was found to be reduced, which is a marker for high allergy sensitivity. This study also shows great promise that Spirulina may be appropriate in treating certain types of problems caused by long-term exposure to radiation.
I was able to find a rough translation of the patent description for this, and it gave the detail that the children’s immunoglobulin E level range was 15 mkg/l – 6663 mkg/l before treatment, and 12 mkg/l – 5416 mkg/l after. There is also a few examples quoted, such as Child A who went from 5183 mkg/l to 767 mkg/l and one who went from 73 mkg/l to 177 mkg/l. You may have noticed that the latter set of figures actually shows a major increase of IgE level, which is counter to the desired effect. Of course any study has a statistical variation where some patients react positively and some negatively, but its surprising out of the few actual data points given one of them had a negative effect. If I was to administer this supplement to patients I would like to know more information about how many of those tested had a negative effect. The patent description also reports P < 0.005, which is a measure that the change observed is likely not from random chance.
I found it odd that the overall average (or median) of IgE before and after treatment was given. Without this, there is no indication how great the effect was, and we cannot infer it from the ranges given. Also, there was apparently no placebo group, and the untreated group was only 15 people, less than half the size of the treated group (35). I have seen tests where the untreated group is proportionally larger and wonder how this effects the overall results.
A final study of interest is “from Chairman of Byelorussian Committee “Children of Chernobyl” May 31, 1991″. In this study, Spirulina was given to 49 children in Beryozova aged 3 to 7 years old for 45 days. Beneficial hormones and T-cell suppressors rose, and in 83% of the children radioactivity of their urine decreased.
As with the first study I mentioned, these other two studies leave a lot of questions. I wasn’t able to find the full text of these either using various online sources. The CTO of Earthrise, who provided me the rough translation of the 1994 study, said that he could not find the 1991 study (“Childen of Chernobyl”) anywhere, but is appeared to be letter or report based on the 1993 study (the first one referenced in this article).
Several of these appear to be in Russian, but if I am ever able to find them and translate them into English, I’ll write another post.
(To be continued in a followup post)
Up until now I have tried to keep this blog very focused on things related to sweets, but I felt a need to make an exception. This is the first part of a special series of posts on spirulina. I will be posting the others shortly. The full set of references will be saved to the last post which should be available within a week.
I have written the full article as a unit, but because it extends over 2000 words I thought it would be easier to digest in several parts.
Recently I came across an article which made claims that Spirulina reversed radiation damage in children and should be given to the children of Fukushima who are struggling through this terrible accident. I had only heard of Spirulina in passing, but I decided to do some research on it to determine whether it really made sense to start giving it to Japanese children.
Spirulina is a cyanobacterium which is identified by some sources as a blue-green algae, although some disagree and claim it is technically not algae. In any case, it was harvested from Lake Texcoco by Aztecs up until the 16th century and is generally thought be very nutritionally rich. Approximately 60% of it is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids, and there is a large variety of lipids (GLA, ALA, LA, etc.) as well as vitamins (vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, etc.) and minerals (potassium, calcium, iron, etc.), among others.
With such a rich nutrient profile, Spirulina has been called “The Magic Food”, a “Superfood”, and even “The Most Nutritious Food On the Planet”.
As you can imagine, many companies have taken advantage of this and selling nutrient supplements of Spirulia, either by itself or with other nutrients added in. If you do a web search you will find hundreds, if not thousands of articles talking about its myriad of health benefits.
Though there is some exaggeration of “amazing” health benefits, and even some have even claimed Spirulina is a flat out scam, there is no doubt to me that there is abundant nutrition in this cyanobacterium. In fact, many types of algae are known to be nutritionally rich and are consumed by many countries. China consumes over 70 species and Japan over 20, including nori, aonori, and wakame.
Some of the various health claims for spirulina are backed by scientific studies. In this series of articles I’d like to focus on the studies and evidence which indicate it has a beneficial effect on radiation victims.
Before I talk about specific studies, I decided I would check to see what medical institutions had to say about Spirulina. First of all, the US National Library of Medicine’s website on Spirulina, last updated 12/09/2011, does not mention anything about effects of reversing radiation damage. It only lists a set of serious medical ailments (diabetes, depression, weight loss, etc.) and notes that there is insufficient medical evidence to rate effectiveness regarding treatment of these. It also remarks that contaminants, such as toxic microcystins and bacteria, maybe present in spirulina so one should be careful to obtain safe spirulina without these, especially when children are consuming it. This is not empty paranoia – in a study published in 2012, several Spirulina products marketed in China were found to have excessive lead.
The US National Library of Medicine also makes an important statement about spirulina as a protein source: “You may have been told that blue-green algae are an excellent source of protein. But, in reality, blue-green algae is no better than meat or milk as a protein source and costs about 30 times as much per gram”. Take note of this, I’ll come back to it a little later.
The University of Maryland Medical Center web site lists similar precautions about contaminants, and also lists a few preliminary studies that give evidence for spirulina’s positive effects on oral cancer, liver disorders, and other ailments. However there is no discussion about its radio-protective properties.
Using Amazon’s online search tool, I also did some searching through the 2007 published work “Spirulina in Human Nutrition and Health”, but was only able to find mention of spirulina’s radio-protective effect with respect to studies about mice and dogs. There was discussion about a study which showed good results for spirulina helping pulmonary function and Immunoglobulin E (an antibody related to allergies) levels.
Searching around the net, I found many articles which referred to Spirulina’s benefical effects of protecting from or reversing problems caused by radiation. However if you look closely into the studies quoted, most of them are either done in test tubes on or animals, were unpublished, or were studies where spirulina was used in combination with other suppliments.
(To be continued in a followup post)
In several of my previous blogs I had adjusted by weight (expressed in grams) when comparing across ice cream products. While the amount of weight per serving is an important value and in comparing using it gives useful information, in reality we eat ice cream by volume, not weight. When you scoop up some ice cream the real limiting factor is volume, in other words size, because ice cream will never be heavy enough for you to care about a spoonfuls worth of weight.
For this reason I’ll try to stick to comparing against volume in future posts. Originally I had started comparing using weight because I noticed this different across ice cream producers and thought it translated to different volumes, so it would be the most fair way to compare. However I was wrong – most ice cream/frozen dessert companies use a standard serving size of 1/2 cup, which yields 4 per pint.
Here is a sample of average weight per 1/2 cup serving for a few ice cream companies:
- Talenti: 100 grams
- Haagen Dazs: 100 grams
- So Delicious Coconut Milk: 85 grams
- Bryers: 66 grams
So how can the weight be almost double for the same volume? The basic ingredients, coconut/cow milk and sugar, shouldn’t differ too much in weight and the minor ingredients are in a lower proportion and have only a small effect on the total weight. The answer may be a little surprising to those who haven’t researched how ice cream is made:
Believe it or not air bubbles are actually a necessary component of (tasty) ice cream. If you want to see what I mean, you can try an experiment which I accidentally did the other day. Move a small portion of ice cream into your refrigerator and wait a few hours until it melts into liquid. Then transfer it back to the freezer and wait a few more hours. It will re-freeze but much of the air (and ice crystals) will be gone, so the texture will be ruined. Also you will see the volume is reduced. If you own an ice cream machine you’ll know that its primary purpose is to continually spin the cream so that these air bubbles form.
If you go back and look at the table above again, you might be upset since Bryer’s is essentially filling their ice cream with air. I found a great post which discusses this practice and does some research to discover the cheaper the ice cream the more air is puffed in. You can find it here.
Some might declare we need to stand up to ice cream producers and force them to stop saving money by giving us air-filled ice cream, but I would disagree. At least for a company like Bryer’s that produces great-tasting ice cream, I don’t think there is any reason for them to change. Personally, I have gravitated to more dense ice creams in the last few years, but I have no problem eating some Bryer’s now and then, albeit in small portions.
Besides a cheaper price to the consumer, there are other advantages to adding air – less calories and sugar content. But be careful, since a much larger container size (gallon vs a pint) means you are likely to gobble up more per sitting. You could also argue there is less nutrition, but most people don’t eat ice cream primarily for nutrition.
Regardless on how you judge things, I believe in transparency – consumers knowing what is really in the products they buy. This includes air, which is not listed on the label as an ingredient.
I recently got a response back from an email query sent to Haagen Dazs with regards to the amount of green tea and caffeine in their green tea ice cream product (which I recently reviewed here).
They were tight lipped on the exact amount of green tea in the product, classifying it as “proprietary information”, but they did respond about the caffeine content:
“there is approximately 25 mg of caffeine per ½ cup serving which is considered 1 serving.”
Haagen Dazs website lists how they use Japanese matcha tea for this product, and according to the energyfiend website, matcha has roughly 70 milligrams of caffeine in 1 cup (8 fluid onces) of tea. This can be twice to three times of that found in other green teas, depending on the company and brewing length. One reason matcha has a high caffeine content is because the whole leaf is present, ground up, instead of just brewing it as other green teas.
Since matcha should be the only ingredient with any significant amount of caffeine present, we can use the above information to get a ballpark figure for how much green tea is in this product. It works out to be roughly one-third cup (1 teaspoon of matcha powder) in a single serving, and almost one and half cups in the entire package (one pint). This is useful information for those trying to make their own homemade ice cream with a similar flavor.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate to a huge amount of tea, so those looking to reap the health benefits of green tea would be better off keeping to matcha tea, or mixing in extra matcha powder into your ice cream.
In a previous article here, I showed how to calculate the maximum proportion of a ingredient listed on a food label. I derived the following simple formula:
Maximum percentage of the Nth ingredient = (100 / N)
This time I’ll use similar logic to derive a formula for the minimum amount of an ingredient, based on only its order in the listing and the total number of ingredients.
Let’s start with the simple case of a product with two ingredients: “sugar, cocoa”.
With a little thought, we can see that sugar cannot be any less than 50%. If it was, then cocoa would have to be greater than 50% (since it equals 100% – sugar) and that is impossible based on the ordering rule that the most prominent ingredients, by weight, are listed first.
What about cocoa? Clearly it has no minimum since it could be 0.00001%, leaving the remaining 99.9999% to sugar.
Next let’s try a product with three ingredients: “sugar, cocoa, shredded coconut”.
Using similar logic, we will see the minimum amount of sugar is 33%, since any less than that would mean the other ingredients would have to have a higher proportion than sugar. If we assumed sugar was 20%, then the other two ingredients must add up to 80%, and therefore one of them must be present in at least 40% proportion – but that is greater than sugar which is listed first!
And the second ingredient? Just like the second ingredient in the two-ingredient example, this can be arbitrarily small. For example: 99.9% sugar, 0.09% cocoa, and 0.01% shredded coconut.
To generalize these results:
Minimum percentage of the 1st ingredient = (100 / T), where T is the number of total ingredients
Minimum percentage of the other ingredients = infinitesimally close to zero
As with the calculations of maximum proportion in my previous article, if we have additional information about the other ingredients we can use that to determine the minimum level of the other ingredients. For the same example, if we sifted and then weighed the shredded coconut (third ingredient), we could determine its overall proportion by weight. Lets say this is 10%. Then we could reason that cocoa, the second ingredient, takes up a minimum of 10% total weight since it must be equal or greater to the amount of shredded coconut. From this we could also conclude sugar (the first ingredient) is at most 80% of the total weight.
You can use nutritional values such as protein and fiber to infer how much of certain ingredients are present, especially if those have a large proportion of a certain element.
You may feel that this sort of calculation may seem unlikely to have any practical use, but if you find yourself saying “I eat so-and-so product because it contains a large amount of X, which is healthy”, then you can use it to see the minimum level of that ingredient you are consuming.
Another use is if you are trying to make a homemade version of something and you want to get a feel for the minimum and maximum amount of it in the product.
In this blog I’ll occasionally discuss nutritional advantages or disadvantages of certain foods, but I’d like you to take those types of statements with a grain of salt. In fact, I think you should avoid taking any matters about nutrition too seriously, even if it comes from a doctor, scientist, or other professional.
The more I learn about nutrition, the more I feel that nobody really knows how good or bad things are for your body. That includes both long- and short-term effects, such as the chance of developing diseases or living longer as a result of a certain diet.
I’ll give a few of the reasons I feel this way. See if you agree.
To begin with, our understanding of the human body is still in its early stages and very limited. This is evident by the innumerable number of medical cases where the cause of the malady is unknown and a process of trial-and-error is used for treatment. This sometimes results in the patient being cured, but other times it ends in failure, or even worse, harm to the patient. This is true even for relatively simple physical systems such as the heart and lungs, but when it comes to the brain our knowledge is even more limited to the point we are just beginning to understand the secrets of the inner workings of this magnificent organ.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to disparage doctors or the medical community at large. On the contrary, I think every one of them is doing an amazing job, trying their best to make each and every patient’s life that much better. Even acknowledging that some doctors enter the field because of its potential for a high income, I’m impressed by anyone who can withstand the mental and physical challenges of this honorable job.
Another reason I don’t take nutritional information too seriously is that there is too many contradictory studies. Taking wine as an example, it has been shown to be linked to higher good cholesterol, help the heart, fight obesity, and help prevent stroke. At the same time it has also been connected to ailments such as migraine headaches, breast cancer, reflux, and chronic liver disease. Is wine good for the body or not? Even assuming every one of these studies is valid, it is unclear if my overall chances to live longer are better or worse as a result of drinking wine. Who is going to want to help their heart if it also increases their chances of liver disease?
Cholesterol is another matter where there is very differing opinions in the community on whether it causes heart disease or not. Blue food coloring, which was previously banned in many countries, is now legal in most of those same countries. Even for something as simple as everyday table salt, there are still debates raging on whether it really causes heart disease or not. And these few cases are just a tip of the iceberg of indecisive nutrition science.
It’s also very instructive to take a detailed look at some of the studies that claim a certain food is either bad or good for the body. Take an example I researched recently, the sweetener Sucralose, better known as Splenda. There are many articles online stating this product is bad because (among other things) a experiment on rabbit babies caused many more of them to die when compared to a control group that wasn’t given Splenda. On the surface this sounds horrible and can make the casual reader vow to never touch this product again.
But if you look deeper into the actual experiment, you find this news reports are very misleading. First, the rabbits were given roughly 450 times the recommended daily intake of Splenda. Clearly if a rabbit (or human) was given the recommended daily intake (450 times less) the effects would be much less, if present at all. Second, the experimenters noted that several of the deaths were caused by complications of the tubes used to feed the subjects. Furthermore, they found many of the negative reactions only occurred with only rabbits, not with mice, dogs, or rats. I’m not trying to say I’m convinced that Splenda is safe for consumption after all, but rather that there is still much room for debate on both sides.
How about vitamin C? Something that is touted to have a major effect on preventing colds and is added to so many products must have a strong scientific foundation, right? Not quite – a recent meta analysis of 72 studies on vitamin C’s effect on the prevention and reduction in length of the common cold determined that “The failure of vitamin C supplementation to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population indicates that routine vitamin C supplementation is not justified”. The study did find some scenarios where vitamin C’s effects were more apparent, such as subjects who were exposed to short periods of extreme stress, but that alone doesn’t warrant recommending it for everyone. So much for all those products which proudly announce “100% of daily value of Vitamin C!”
So what is the reason for all this indecisiveness? Besides the fact that the human body is such a complex thing and that all bodies are not made alike, in modern capitalist societies nearly everyone has an agenda. Food and drink producers want to make money, so they fund researchers to help ‘prove’ their product, or some ingredient used within, is healthy. If the results of the research are positive, they publish them and improve their chances of convincing the public to buy the product. But if things don’t turn out in their favor, they simply don’t release the information outside of their company. This is called the “file drawer effect” and adds a major bias to research without anyone outright lying.
What about those research results that prove a certain food is unhealthy? Surely, those are published by more morally minded, fair sources.
I doubt it.
The companies producing health foods without certain ingredients benefit from studies which prove those substances are unhealthy. Health-oriented supermarkets, such as Whole Foods Market, also have a stake in the game. There is also a plethora of health magazines, books, and news outlets which make money off any interesting or dramatic research. Note I didn’t include “accurate” here as a condition. Of course, I can’t speak comprehensively for all researchers, but I’m sure there is a great deal of bias on both sides of the nutritional debates.
Another example that had me fooled until recently was “evaporated cane juice”. I had seen this listed on several “health foods” in place of normal sugar and for quite some time I felt great that I was putting healthy, natural sugar in my body, as opposed to the evil, unprocessed stuff. But I happened to stumble on some articles that discussed how this ingredient was nearly the same thing, with negligible nutrients. In spite of a recommendation of FDA for companies to not using this misleading term, Chobani did so and was apparently sued by several people in California. Again, I’m not saying this is clear cut one way or the other – feel free to investigate yourself and see what evidence you can find.
The difficult of measuring long-term effects further complicates things. Even assuming a study is ideally designed and carried out, it would take at least 20 to 30 years to find out true long term effects. Nobody wants to wait that long to find of whether their favorite candy has detrimental long-term effects on the body. Also, for a study of that scale it must be very challenging to keep the number of variables small and the amount of data from getting out of hand. Do you think it would be easy to force two groups of people over several decades to eat the exact same diet with just one difference (i.e. use added salt or not)? That would be the only way to know for certain the effects of that change, notwithstanding various statistical methods used to extract the influence of a single variable when many are present.
To be fair, there are some things that have been proven conclusively to have major negative effects on the body – hard drugs, tabacco, and alcohol to name a few. But even in some of those cases (alcohol being one), there don’t appear to be any drastic effects if done in moderation. The bigger problem with all these substances is that they can be addictive, and the more frequent your intake is the higher your chances of damaging your body (or worse).
But most nutrition just isn’t that black or white – especially for small doses. So if you plan to enjoy an occasional pint of ice cream, don’t feel like you need to stress out over the ingredients. Its only for those that are addicted to sweets where it makes more sense to carefully analyze what your eating.
Did you learn anything? Feel a little different about nutrition? I hope if nothing else you have been motivated to call into question your fundamental stance on nutrition.
If you are convinced about the uncertainty of modern nutrition, the next question is what do do about it? Some may decide to just give up caring at all, and eat whatever they want. Others could try and read every published study, analyzing them and making their own decisions about nutrition – but doing that exhaustively would take an insane amount of time, and require some heavy scientific and medical background knowledge. Finally, you can just pick sources to trust, Dr. Oz or whomever that may be, and make nutritional decisions based on that information.
Just like other life decisions where things aren’t black or white, you’ll probably make decisions partially on emotion, partially on logic, and partially on logic. You’ll believe in your own way.
So – after saying all this, why do I even focus on nutrition in this blog? Shouldn’t I just give it up completely due to lack of clear direction on nutritional guidelines?
As I mentioned in my first post, my background is such that I like to think through things logically like a scientist, and enjoy very much picking apart a dessert ingredient by ingredient, looking up studies and opinions on each. Regardless of what you happen to believe about nutrition, I feel that nutritional transparency is very important. If consumers are not aware of what is in the food they are eating they can’t even begin the debate on whether those are healthy or not. That’s why I still am vehemently against “natural flavors” and anything that is not well-defined. I may choose to munch on some particularly (supposedly) unhealthy sweets, but I want to do it with full knowledge of what I’m putting into my body.
The process of learning about nutrition, and most other topics for that matter, is never ending. I’m still discovering new things day by day, inputting new information and always ready to change my beliefs.
Have you ever wondered how much of a certain ingredient is really present in a sweet, or any food product?
You probably know that ingredients are listed on food labels in order or prevalence, with the most predominant ingredient first. You may have even known this was determined by weight. But in this article I will discuss a method to get an estimate for the maximum of each ingredient’s percentage of total weight – just by using the ordered ingredient list.
To derive this formula, lets start with a very simple example, a product with just “coffee and sugar”. Since coffee is listed first we know it has higher or equal amount of total weight when compared to sugar.
Is there anything we can do to determine about how much the first ingredient, coffee, is really in the product? The answer is no because coffee could be almost 100% to almost 0% of the total weight, with sugar filling in the remaining space. (Actually, there is a trick to determine the amount here since the second ingredient is sugar, which I’ll discuss later in this article).
But what about the sugar?
Well, if you think about it, there can’t be more than 50% sugar, by weight, since any more of that would mean there was more sugar than coffee, which we know is not the case.
So we’ve learned something important – that there is no more than 50% sugar in the product. This would apply to another second ingredient when there are two total ingredients.
What if there were three or more total ingredients? We would get the same result, because the other ingredients could be in trace amounts (practically 0%), so the “50% maximum for the second ingredient” rule would still apply.
What about the maximum amount of the third ingredient? Using the same logic you will see it cannot be above 33.3%, since any more of that would mean it is in greater proportion than the first and second ingredients. And for the forth ingredient you get a maximum, by weight, of 25%.
Turning this into a simple formula we get the following:
Maximum percentage of the Nth ingredient = (100 / N)
So for the 5th ingredient, you would get (100 / 5) = 20% maximum weight of that ingredient.
If you use formula along with the serving size you can determine the maximum weight of any of the ingredients per serving. Pretty handy if you want to minimize your intake of certain things.
If you want to take this to the next step, you can infer more information when one more more ingredients are a type of sugar. For example, if a product contains “coffee, sugar” and has 3 grams of sugar per 15 gram serving, then you know right away there is 20% sugar and 80% coffee in this product. Keep in mind that the grams of sugar listed includes any type of sugar, so if you have multiple ingredients which contain some type of sugar (even fruits) then the calculation gets a little trickier.
Besides knowing there is a certain percentage of sugar, you can use that to deduce information about other ingredients.
For example, if the imaginary product I just described had a third ingredient, say “coffee, sugar, vanilla”, then you would know that there is 20% or less vanilla because sugar is 20% or less. This assumes that there is no sugar in the vanilla, otherwise it would be harder to make any definitive conclusions.
Similarly, if you know how much protein is in each ingredient, you can figure out even more using the supplied protein in grams.
You can also leverage information about other ingredients to deduce additional information about the other ingredients. For example if a product had “milk, sugar, guar gum, vanilla”, you would know that the proportion of vanilla is much less than 25% since guar gum is typically used in relatively small doses. (I’ve tried overusing guar gum in homemade ice cream – its not pretty!)
I love thinking about food and ingredients from a methodical, logical point of view since it allows me to apply science to my everyday life.