10 October 2011

Food additives and product ingredients

There is no doubt about it, when you start living a more simple life and decide to get rid of as many harsh chemicals as you can, you have to turn into a bit of a detective. Some of the information we seek to live simply is not openly available, we have to search for it; luckily we all have our computers to make that easier.  All the decisions you make about what you include in your life now should be examined. Don't make soap or bread because I do it, or your best friend does, if has to make sense to you in your circumstances. So, if you're trying to decide whether you should put some time aside to make your own soap, bread, cleaners, pasta, jam etc., you might want to compare it with what you're already using. You might need to read information such as the following before you can make up your mind.

Soap and detergent - how they work
Various UK chemical databases

Household Products Database USA 
Household Ingredients Database - USA
Tox Town - chemicals database USA

Food Intolerance Network - Sue Dengate
TGA Product Recalls
Material Safety Data Sheets for Australian Colgate products
Material Safety Data Sheets for Australian soaps, including Lux Flakes
Guidelines for School Canteens in Australia

People often say to me that simple living is far from simple but this is a good case in point. Have a look at the additives in many of the cleaning products and soap listed in the links above, or what you have in your cupboards right now. Then compare that with what you could be using on your skin. I know which is simple. These are the ingredients I use when making soap:
  1. Olive Oil
  2. Coconut Oil
  3. Caustic Soda
  4. Rainwater
There are decisions to be made regarding food additives and preservatives too. Are you trying to decide between buying certain foods and making or preserving your own? Make your decision according to what you know to be true and make sure it suits the unique family you're part of. There is no one size fits all.

Look at the additives on any label of jam or marmalade you currently have in your pantry or fridge and compare that with my recipe, or anyone's homemade recipe for raspberry jam:
  1. Raspberries
  2. Sugar
  3. Lemon
Want to compare breads? Check the label of your plastic sliced bread or even some of the more expensive speciality breads and compare that with my recipes for the bread we eat here:
  1. Baker's flour
  2. Yeast
  3. Salt
  4. Water
There are no preservatives in what we use, we make it fresh and eat it the same day. It doesn't need to sit on a shelf for a day or a week; it doesn't need to have preservatives added.

What is in the salad dressing you use? How many gums and numbers does the ingredients list contain? Compare that with:
  1. Extra virgin olive oil
  2. Vinegar
  3. Pepper
  4. Garlic
I could go on and on but I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about. I think it's as plain as the nose on your face - homemade from scratch will be less likely to contain preservatives, colourings and artificial flavourings, in fact whatever you make will contain only what you add. You can't be more sure of your food or personal cleaners than that. So I guess the choice is between paying someone else to make what you need and not having control over what is added, and making it yourself, which takes time and effort. Convenience versus time, effort and cost.

I cannot make everything we use here but I made the choice of what I make and what I buy after doing my research and all my detective work. We all have to make our own decisions according to the time, energy and money we have available, and if you have to buy certain products and food, I encourage you to base your decisions on what you know about the product, not habit, convenience or advertising.

There is a very good book called The Chemical Maze that contains lists and the dangers of additives in food and cosmetics. It's small enough to go into my bag when I'm shopping so I can check things I don't know before buying them. If there is an ingredient on a label I'm not familiar with, I can check it. I've had this book for many years and was just checking to see if it's still available, and yes, it is, but it also comes as a variety of apps as well. You can find the information about it here. I'm not affiliated with this book or the author at all.

There is no right or wrong way of doing this. Each of us will prefer to buy certain things already made and make others at home. Don't be pressured into making soap, or anything, at home because your friends are doing it, that's as crazy as buying a certain brand of soap because you like the advertising for it. Do your research, read labels, ask questions, know what is in what you use and eat, then make your decisions according to your knowledge, the money and time you have available and your common sense.  And if you have another way to check these things, I'd love to hear about it, please share what you know in the comments.


  1. 'Read the Label' by Judy Davie is a really informative book for Australian shoppers. She explains the additives and their aliases and there are categorised lists - for example the real baddies are lumped together so you know the ones you really want to avoid. I've just started reading 'Chemical Free Kids' by Dr Sarah Lantz. The case studies are quite alarming and will make you want to aim for as many natural products as possible at home.

  2. I totally agree! Homemade food tastes better, is better for you & much cheaper too. Am still perfecting the soap making though...

  3. I've found everything you said here to be very true. The more "detective work" I do, the more motivation it gives me to make all I can for my family. It's ironic to me that I've had to learn basic, old-fashioned skills like knitting and baking bread from the Internet. I'm grateful to have this information so readily available to me, but still, I wonder how we got so far away from passing these skills down within a family.

    On a related note, the more I make for myself, the more I also notice the inferiority of ready-made products for sale. I'm not sure if it's that my homemade bread really, truly tastes better, or that it appears to taste better because of the ownership I have in making it. Either way, it's very empowering!

  4. We cook like this and my children are little label readers when we go grocery shopping. It is a strange world when people think a list of chemicals and fillers are 'food' . Have a look at the ingredients in a woolworths chocolate cake next time you go shopping - I am not sure you can even call it 'food' , the list of chemicals and colours is as long as your arm.
    An important post, as a teacher I am seeing a generation of children dramatically affected by what they are innocently eating.

  5. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about. The amount of artificial ingredients in food, especially products aimed specifically at children, is ridiculous.
    A great practical, Western Australian book about additives in foods, and the regulations about this topic, is Additive Alert by Julie Eady. This is a 'must-read' for any parent.
    Happy baking.

  6. ABC Radio program Nightline did an interview with the author of the book chemical maze recently, it was very good, he has just released an updated version of his book. Also I have just discovered that the active ingredient in the only shampoo I can use is a carcinogen...coal tar! And it's in most hair and skin care products we use. Buyer Beware. I'm now washing my hair in your home made soap (recipie)

  7. So, so true! And then we can throw genetically modified food into the mix. Scary! Anything with corn or canola we refuse to buy unless it states GM free on the pack. Who knows how many foods have been cooked with GM ingredients. I find it impossible to make everything we eat, right down to tomato sauce and bread, but I'm trying very hard!

  8. Excellent post! I had this very discussion with my future daughter in law last night... she is looking for natural solutions for cleaning and eating - and at her young age it is very encouraging to see! I do believe a change is coming.... thank goodness for that!

  9. I've read your soap-making posts repeatedly with interest, but have never been quite up to the commitment. A recent laundry experience has me finally considering giving it a go. I normally use the Sensitive Perfume & Dye Free version of a popular detergent, but while traveling on business was forced to use the regular version. My skin instantly had a major melt down. Hives everywhere and nerve endings firing off alerts. It took several laundering cycles to rid the clothing of the offending chemicals and another week for my body to settle down. So your post today was really poignant for me. It also brings to mind, the new book "Slow Death By Rubber Duck: the Secret Danger of Everyday Things" by Rick Smith. Smith and his co-author, Bruce Lourie used products (shampoo, toothpaste, soap) and tested their blood for residual chemicals as they went along with mind-blowing results.

  10. Great post Rhonda. A few years ago a friend told me about a book that has really changed our lives - "Fed Up" by Sue Dengate, an Aussie mum and author. While we have always been careful about our diet some nasties have crept in and reading this book made me realise that the symptoms were not always just hyper kids, but sometimes much more insidious. I photocopied a small list of the very nasty nasties and keep it on my purse - if in doubt while shopping I can just have a quick look and leave the product on the shelf!
    I think she has a printable list on her website -

  11. I heard a podcast about the "Slow death by Rubber Duck book" which means I'm not more careful about what ingredients are in my toothpaste. I also cook most things from scratch, but not bread because of time balancing things, but I hate that my husband thinks its okay for a loaf of bread to last 5 days - it is NOT, it is full of preservatives. I buy the best bread I can and it is stale by the end of the second day, which is perfect. Better that than still looking okay...
    I also notice when my 3 yr old does eat things with preservatives, he goes a bit crazy... so very glad it is rare around here.

  12. Thank you for these links. Almost two years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer and one of the first things I did was clean out my cupboards and beauty supplies of anything I declared as toxic. I did do some research but I know I am better off now because of eliminating these things.

  13. Slow death by rubber duck is a very moving book on the subject of chemicals in our products that needn't be there and are bad for us. Pharmecuetical companies have to prove their chemicals and ddrugs are safe to use on humans but chemical companies do not and can add anything they like into toothpaste, body lotions, shampoos, plastic toys, baby bottles and loads more stuff. If you see the word 'fragrance' in a list of ingrediants it means the product contains Phthalates, it is a chemical that carries fragrance and it is toxic in large doses, but we get large doses of it because it is in most things. Not to mention bisphenal A and teflon.
    So have a look at this book or check out an interview on SLOW TV http://www.themonthly.com.au/slow-death-rubber-duck-toxic-chemistry-everyday-life-2543
    The chemical world is navigable so don't lose hope.

  14. I'm with you. We make as much as possible from scratch and steer clear of anything processed, that way we are not buying anything harmful. we happily limit ourselves to the basics and find this ample for a fulfilling life.

  15. I'm so glad you've posted about this. I believe that people are suffering all kinds of health problems due to the ingredients in their food and personal care products, but have no idea what is causing their symptoms.

    I think many people are unaware of just how many additives they consume (the average Westerner consumes 6-7kgs of food additives every year), because they have been added into our foods quietly and without fanfare. Take bread, as you mentioned. Used to be made with just simple ingredients. It's no longer made with just those simple ingredients, but consumers continue to buy it, thinking it's "healthy", not knowing that the bread we eat today is a far cry from the bread our parents or grandparents ate.

  16. Thanks Rhonda. It is great to have people like yourself out there leading the way. I currently make soap and laundry liquid using your recipes. My family washes our hair using the soap. I also break it up into small pieces and put it in a liquid soap dispenser with water. Add more or less soap depending on how you like it. You just shake it up and it works really well.

  17. Great reminder Rhonda. We now cook so much from scratch for our health, for the environment and for our savings. It is a great change to make and what's wonderful about cooking from scratch is that it forces you to slow down. So many people want to simplify their lives, slow things down, live with more intention. Cooking from scratch is a great doorway because it's satisfying, you see the results immediately and it puts the breaks on fast-paced living. xo m.

  18. When I came from Portugal I found it strange that the fruit here seems to last for weeks without going rotten, it can only be because it´s full of chemicals!! I was used to fruit going off after 2 or 3 days. Thanks for the links Rhonda, interesting reading for sure!

  19. Absolutely! The other book that is really good in line with this topic is Super Natural Mom by Beth Greer.

  20. Hi, On Saturday our little family(2adults,8yr old home-schooler) sat down after lunch-salad from our garden,homemade vinigarette & homemade bread.We made a list of everything we still buy at the supermarket-we also did this 6 months ago. Each item could stay on the supermarket list if:
    1.we couldn't make a better eco/organic alternative
    2.It passed the criteria of "The Guide to Ethical Supermarket shopping"a great little book.(My husband got this for Fathers Day since he does the supermarket shopping on the way home from work-saves petrol,time and is convenient for a one car family)
    3.We could substitute eg.instead of a jar of artichoke hearts for the pizza use a topping that is now growing in season in our permaculture garden.
    Realistically we decided on a few more items to leave the list,I'll work on replacements.
    This doesn't happen over night and we have been working on the list for about 18months. and thanks to you Rhonda we have added a few ideas from you inspiring blog. Thank you.

  21. Thanks Rhonda. Always a great post from you!
    I agree with poster above, slow death by rubber duck is a good book.
    I saw you in a mag the other day! I did a double take and was so pleased to see you in there!

  22. I like your Steve Jobs' quote on your sidebar.

    Similar sentiment to a 'calling'. I think of 'work' both in terms of paid & unpaid work. Each is valuable and when one is using one's skills/talents/gifts for the betterment of mankind, self and the earth, then this is serving in the best possible way. It's bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.

    One's life can also consist of some of each kind of work...and in different ratios over the seasons of our lives.

  23. I think your blog shines out amongst the many out there as really true and lovely - thank you!. I'm sure there are loads of books and lots of information on this. I found 'Not on the label' by Felicity Lawrence to be a real eye-opener. I also recently read again about what we are supporting when we feed our pets - this time in a free local eco newspaper (UK) but you can read it at: http://issuu.com/thesparkmagazine/docs/spark_66_to_web/23#share . Don't forget all the nasties in what you use on your skin and makeup etc. I find the information good at The Organic Pharmacy (they are very pricey and glossy but have a list on their website of the things to look out for in cosmetics and creams etc). and Dr Haushka also have a good website of information about ingredients in cosmetics. More to consider by the day! Simple is best as you say. I don't use anything if I don't understand and know everything on the ingredients list.

  24. I learned the hard way about all these chemicals. First I found out that SLS (sodium laurel sulphate - a common chemical in shampoos and body washes) aggravates my psoriasis AND my eczema. I would break out in this rashes all over my body. Horrible. So I stopped using products with SLS.

    THEN I discovered parabens and petrochemicals (by products of petroleum - crude oil - also commonly used in shampoos, soaps, lotions, etc) ALSO aggravated my skin problems.

    Strangely, even many "natural" products sold in health food stores still contain these chemicals despite the fact they are well known to irritate skin! I have to be very careful reading labels. I use a lot of plain olive oil soap! :-)

  25. Hi Rhonda,
    Do you know what made me take a second look at what I consume? Advertising!
    Ironic isn't it. In my personal life I rebel in every way against the very industry that employs me. First-hand knowledge of all the little nuances and persuasions used to make us buy-aholics have made me over the years into an anti-consumer on many levels.
    Here is how it began. Many many years ago I was designing a food label for a 'big brand' local client. I called to request a list of ingredients and if there was anything about the product that we could use to push it above the competitors. Bear in mind that we do have a Bureau of Standards here and one must comply with certain rules when labeling a product and when advertising it.
    So the client says to me: 'Put whatever ingredients the other brands have on theirs and put something like 'no cholesterol' everybody is in to that these days'.
    Huh? But is this true of your product?
    'Nope but nobody knows that'.
    I proceed to insist that there are regulations.
    'Never mind that. Nobody cares and the consumer will be none the wiser.'
    I inform my boss at the time and put matters in his hands. My boss explains again to client. Client says he will accept responsibility. Boss doesn't want to lose client's business so gives in. Label proceeds with all bogus information. It is still being sold.
    Want more?
    I daily use a program in which I can manipulate and completely transform photographs. e.g. I can change the colour of your skin, proportion of your limbs, the curves of your face and body, I can give you boobs and cheekbones, remove your stretch marks or acne, I can fix your teeth, I can put you standing next to the Eiffel tower, in a gambling casino, a brothel, drinking booze and smoking pot... I can do anything I want with any image I have. My fellow computer artists and I have developed a term for this - SPIELBERGing.
    So don't believe everything you see. Especially in glamour magazines. Oh and those yummy food shots...we have created culinary wonders with the use of cigarettes, plastic, glue, soap...
    We use certain words, images, colours, shapes, psychology, etc. to persuade you.
    Yes, we mess with your mind :)
    By all means, do your research. But then again, we can manipulate that too to our client's advantage :)

    Just so you know...
    Trinidad & Tobago

  26. I make my own laundry soap - one batch can last for a year or more ... 5 gallons of soap for a single person. I love the fact that my clothes only smell clean. There are way too many different scents out there and the laundry isle at the market makes my eyes water and my nose tingle - I hate that!!

    Most of the additives are bad for you - then you go to a doctor to find out what is bothering your system and THEY give you more chemicals to clear it up; just doesn't make sense to me.

    I have a friend who wants me to make him and his family a batch of laundry soap ... he'll buy the ingredients. He is impressed with my CLEAN clothes that don't smell and also with how well it cleans!

  27. SkinDeep http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
    is a great website for looking up the everyday products that you use. they rate items by their ingredients on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 being of least concern and ten high concern for things like cancer, allergies, etc....
    I use this for US products, not sure if they have products from other countries.

  28. This is a huge issue for us Rhonda as my daughter has been diagnosed with food intolerances and we must be especially careful with what she eats, and what chemicals she is exposed to.
    Thank you for those links. I have to say, Sue Dengate's books are like bibles to our house. That lady has totally changed our lives.
    I used to think I was being careful with what we ate, but I now know just how crazy and full of additives modern food has become. It makes me angry to think I have to battle to buy a loaf of bread without synthetic additives in it... but our answer, as you have described, is to make everything from scratch. It takes time and effort, but the rewards for me are a healthy family and a little girl who is now flourishing where before she was struggling to get through a day without reacting to something she ate.
    Great post, thank you.

  29. Chemical Maze was recently on one of those current affairs programs discussing the orange juice that is now full of overseas imported oranges laced with chemicals. One more thing to be careful about when out and about with the kids. I just ordered myself a copy from your link. I've cut out almost all additives by making from scratch and being very selective on what I buy but now I can be even more sure when I do my shopping.


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