How to read food labels when grocery shopping
Confused about what foods are healthy and what’s not? Everyone knows that fresh fruit and vegetable produce are good choices, but what about foods that are packaged? Unfortunately, many food manufacturers don’t have our best interests at heart. Deciphering all the information on the labels can be quite difficult at times, and not everything is always as healthy as claimed. So besides checking Use By or Best Before dates, what else do you need to know?
Food Labels 101
When checking out the contents, the less number of ingredients you see in a product, the healthier it’s likely to be. For example a packet of rolled oats contains just that; rolled oats and nothing else. Boxes of muesli may be an exception: as they may contain a number of different grains, nuts and seeds.
The best rule of thumb is to avoid foods that contain more than 6 ingredients. Any more than that and you’ll probably find lots of additives.
The quantities of ingredients are listed from the highest to lowest. Aim to choose products that have healthy foods listed in the first few ingredients, and avoid those that have lots of different additives. And if they sound like a science lab, chances are that they were created in a science lab too! What we’re aiming for are foods that look like they come from nature, so a cashew nut is probably a healthier choice than a Cheezel!!
Where possible, avoid products with sugars listed first, or that contain hydrogenated oils which are very unhealthy!! And please don’t be misled by health claims on products, as they are often untrue.
Carbohydrates and Sugar:
Despite popular opinion, carbohydrates are good for you! They help to form the building blocks ATP, which fuels each and every cell of the body; and DNA the genetic material required for cell replication. When broken down into simple sugars, carbohydrates fuel our brain, muscles and other tissues. You’ll find these in root vegetables, rice and other wholegrains.
The sugars you don’t want are often the ones found in packaged foods. And you might find more than one type of sugar in one product. Alternative names for high sugar ingredients include:
· Anything ending in –ose: dextrose, glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose
· Cane juice
· Brown sugar
· Golden syrup
· Corn syrup, malt syrup or any anything called syrup
· Fruit juice concentrate
· Coconut syrup
In Australia, approximately 350 additives are approved to be used in foods. (Mind boggling, I know!) These are used to improve food’s appearance and flavour; others keep contents from separating or enhance the product shelf-life.
Products are classified by groups of numbers in their hundreds:
· 100s: represent food colourings
· 200s: preservatives
· 400s: represent thickeners
· 600s: flavour enhancers
· 900s: artificial sweeteners
You may be surprised to know that some additives are actually healthy. For example, food colouring 100 represents turmeric. This gives food a yellow colour, but is also packed full of anti-oxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, is liver protective and a blood sugar regulator. You’ll often find it in pastries, sauces, jams and soups. However, additive number 102, Tartrazine which also gives a yellow colour to food, has been found to cause allergic skin reactions, asthma, migraines, hyperactivity and aggressive behaviour. And guess where you’ll find it? Mainly in children’s’ lollies, jelly, soft drink and even ice cream!
It’s not surprising that the European Union has actually banned tartrazine! In Australia, though, there are no such health warnings. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the hidden nasties going into your food; and make better choices where possible. A great tool is the Chemical Maze app; it can identify and advise which additives are healthy or not. Really helpful when you’re in the supermarket!
4. Serving sizes:
Take care when reading quantities of fats, sugar and calories by serving size. Often the serving size is way smaller than what you would realistically consume on a single occasion. For example, the nutritional panel information of a particular Anzac Biscuit serving size is based on 1 biscuit!! Most people would eat at least 2-3 biscuits at once, so this a little misleading.
Next, when comparing products side by side, it’s best to compare by the “per 100grams.” This is because serving sizes may vary from brand to brand; so this wat you’ll put both products on an even playing field. (You’ll be comparing apples with apples, so to speak.)
5. Low fat anyone?
Foods containing fat are great because they fill us up and taste really good! However, they should be eaten in small quantities if they are packaged. When reading labels, beware of low fat products; because to make up for flavour, extra salt or sugar is usually added. So it’s not as healthy as it looks….
When it comes to fats, you are best using olive oil, nuts and seeds or oily fish as a food source, rather than in packaged foods if you can. Otherwise, keep those high fat packaged foods to weekend treats.
Whilst we can’t completely live without packaged foods, it’s best to make things from scratch where possible, or be a little more savvy about reading labels and making wiser choices.
Still confused? Let’s work together and make nutrition easy and fun for you!