Food labels are complicated and can confuse even the most savvy of individuals. It is vital that you understand food labels and learn how to navigate your way around the complex walls the food industry puts up to make people buy more, consume more and keep coming back for more.
The Australian Government has a great guideline that makes reading labels easier and assists consumers in making healthier food choices at the supermarket (found at www.measureup.gov.au):
- Each food product has a Nutrition Information Panel. This provides information on the amount of energy, protein, fat (total and saturated), carbohydrates (total and sugar) and sodium (salt).
- Ingredient list. All of the ingredients contained in the food are listed in order of weight. You can use this to see how much sugar is in a food relative to the other ingredients by how high it is in the ingredient list. Try to avoid choosing foods where sugar is one of the first few ingredients in the list.
- Percentage labelling – this tells you how much of the characterising ingredients are in your product. For example, percentage labelling will tell you what percentage of the strawberry yoghurt is made up of strawberries (note, this percentage is often dismally low).
- Food additives – food additives, including colours, flavours and preservatives will be included in the ingredients list in the form of numbers. If you are sensitive to a particular additive and know its identifying number, this will help you avoid foods containing the offending additive.
- Country of Origin – in Australia, the label of any packaged food must state the country that the food was made or produced in.
- Directions for use and storage – these include specific instructions such as “refrigerate after use”. When followed, these instructions help to maintain the safety and quality of the food.
- Information for allergy sufferers – products containing the major allergens: peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews), shellfish, milk, eggs, sesame, soybeans and gluten, are labelled as “may contain…”
- Date marketing – do not buy or consume foods after their “use-by” date. Food is still safe for consumption after its “best before” date.
While this information is relatively simple and easy to understand, things become a lot more complicated when food is labelled ‘fat free’, “low GI”, “low fat”, “light”, “lite”, “natural”, “organic” or “gluten free”. What do these things mean and are they just marketing spin? The short answer is yes.
- First off, “fat free” does not mean calorie free. Ever picked up a bag of lollies and noticed the fat free label? Sure, it has no fat, but that is because the product is almost 100 per cent sugar. Use your heads here guys. Also, “reduced fat” doesn’t mean “low fat”, so watch out for that one too. (“93% fat free” still means 7% fat. Yuck.)
- Currently, there is no law covering the use of the low GI (glycaemic index) labelling. This means that there is no industry standard on which foods are low GI and which aren’t. Many naturally low-GI foods do not carry this label. Be sure to know the difference.
- In a nutshell, labelling a food as ‘light’ or ‘lite’ doesn’t mean much at all. Generally these labels refer to the fat content on a particular food, such as yoghurt, however this usually means that a substitution is used and added for flavour, which is where sugar and a whole host of other processed junk is included in the ingredients to compensate for it’s ‘light’ qualities. Avoid ‘light’ and ‘lite’ foods like the plague. This label is useless.
- By labelling a food as ‘natural’ the food industry wants you to think it is healthier, lower in calories and better for you. This is almost always never the case. There is currently no regulation on foods that can carry this label, meaning that a muesli bar can be labelled ‘natural’ even though it is full of processed sugar, saturated fats, acids, preservatives and unhealthy oils. Natural does not equal healthy. Check the ingredients. Last time I checked, hydrochloric acid was not natural.
- What about organic? While there are strict laws with regards to the use of the word ‘organic’, consuming organic food doesn’t necessarily mean the food is healthy. While generally, organic food is fresher and better for you, organic lollies and other organic junk food does exist. Just because it’s made from organic sugar, organic molasses or organic syrup doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The same goes for gluten free. When gluten is removed from popular items such as bread and muffins, it is topped up with processed flours, starches and other preservatives to try to re-create a ‘glutinous’ appearance and taste. Not good and not healthy. Gluten free bread is also often laden with sugar.
One more tip - take note of portion sizes. This can be incredibly deceiving and can make any food look like a healthy paradise (cereal brands are the worst offenders). Some calorie counts on products are based on 1 serve or portion size, which can be as little say as 100 grams in a 500 gram packet. Check and recheck so you are informed.
The key is to get educated when it comes to reading labels. The more you know about the food you buy and put in your body, the more choice you have over your health. Start reading labels today and see how many hidden nasties you have been consuming.