Knowing how to read nutrient labels will help you to make better food choices when shopping. Marketing slogans that call a product ‘healthy’ or ‘natural’ can make a food sound a lot better than the ingredients would merit. Often when we are too busy we believe what is written on the front of the package, rather than taking the time to read what is actually on the back. For example, popcorn is considered a great low-fat snack. However, if you buy the microwave or prepared versions, you will find they can be a lot higher in salt and fat than if you buy dried corn and pop it yourself.
If advertising can be misleading, let’s have a look at what some of these terms really mean.
Lite or Light
This can mean a number of things and not necessarily that the product is lower in kilojoules or fat. Lite potato crisps may be thinly sliced and lightly salted, however they may still contain the same amount of fat. Light olive oil has a lighter flavour, light beer has less alcohol content, light margarine has less fat, light cheese has less fat and salt. It is important you check the label for what it is that has been ‘lightened’. Light does not necessarily mean healthier either, as it means more processing has had to occur to make the product lighter. It is not just the fat content but also the type of fat present that matters.
90% Fat Free
Whilst we are on the topic of fat this really means the food contains ten percent fat – however, saying it the other way round makes it sound better!
This means the food has less fat than its normal version (usually 25-30 percent). It may not necessarily be low in fat, which is not what we want anyway.
Cholesterol Free or No Cholesterol
Stop worrying about cholesterol, it is whether there are trans fats that matters much more. When they cut out fat it usually means there is more sugar.
Fresh or Natural
Both of these terms get overused and abused. Fresh should only be applied to foods that do not go through any preserving processes like freezing, canning or high temperatures. Natural is used to give the impression that this product is somehow superior. However, it should only be used when foods are left as close to their natural form as possible, as they exist in nature. That means foods with no additives, colourings or preservatives, unless they are natural themselves.
No artificial colours or flavours
This is a key selling point for a number of consumers, however natural food colours like beta-carotene or natural flavour extracts (orange, vanilla) which are made in a laboratory can be used.
No added MSG
MSG is a man-made chemical flavour enhancer. It can cause palpitations, headaches, dizzyness, numbness and also trigger allergies such as asthma. It can be hidden in hydrolysed vegetable protein, yeast extract, seasonings and spices. Just because it says no added MSG doesn’t mean it is not in there. It just means in the final stages of processing it was not added.
Generally means no chemical preservatives are present, although other methods of preservation may be used, like vacuum sealing or pasteurisation. It often appears on food products as reassurance, even if preservatives are not permitted anyway in that particular food.
This means the food has 25 percent less salt than the regular one. It must show the comparison with a reference food. It does not necessarily mean low salt. Watch out for this.
When you compare a bottle of regular soy sauce with a bottle of reduced salt, organic and natural soy sauce called Tamari. Interestingly, the salt level is considerably lower in the regular one with 407 mg sodium per 100 ml as opposed to the so-called salt-reduced one, which has 980 mg sodium per 100ml. It just goes to show how important it is to read the nutrition information label on the back!
No Added Sugar
Means there is no added cane sugar, glucose, fructose, malt, malt extract, maltose or honey. But it does not mean it is low in sugar overall or that an artificial sweetener has been added instead. Check the ingredients carefully.
High in Fibre
The food must contain at least three grams of fibre per serving to be able to make this claim. Wholegrain breakfast cereals and mixed grain breads fit into this category. Just because it says high in fibre doesn’t mean it is low in sugar. Very High in Fibre means it must contain six grams of fibre per serving, such as bran cereal, baked beans and lentils. There is nothing like fresh fruits and veges for the best fibre of all.
High in Protein
The food must contain at least five grams of protein per 100 grams. Lean cuts of meat, chicken, eggs, milk and cheese can be in this category.
There must be no detectable gluten at all for a manufacturer to be able to make this claim. Wheat, rye, barley, oats and malt made from cereals or starch should not be present. It does not necessarily mean it is safe for those with an intolerance as traces may still be present through manufacturing processes. Due to it now being such a marketing ploy many gluten free products are a mixture of other chemicals and processes. Again, read your ingredients.
To be able to say ‘pure fruit juice’, it must contain 100 percent juice and no added water. However, it may contain up to four percent added sugar, depending on seasonal sweetness of the fruit. This would have to be shown on the ingredients list.
Fruit Juice Drink
Only 25-50 percent of the liquid is fruit juice. Most of these are sweetened with sugar and have water or other juices added.
Fruit Juice Cordial
Contains a minimum of 25 percent fruit juice, but only around five percent when made up with water. A lot of cordials also contain added sugar, flavours and colours.
Contains only five percent fruit juice.
Should be made from 100 percent wholemeal flour, or 90 percent wholemeal and 10 percent white flour, but you can’t rely on this figure. Check the label to see how much actual wholemeal content the bread contains. Wholemeal and wheatmeal can mean the same.
Mixed Grain or Multigrain Bread
There is no specific requirement, but is usually made from white or wheat flour with added grains mixed in. This bread generally has a lower fibre content than wholemeal bread, but because of the grains, the carbohydrate lasts longer.
Reading Labels at the Supermarket
If you still feel the need to purchase prodcuts from a supermarket as opposed to farmers markets, organic suppliers and fresh fuits, vegetables and animal products t is recommended you take the following steps when purchasing products to go in your supermarket trolley.
1. The information on the front of the product is designed to attract your attention and encourage you to buy it. Ignore it and turn to the back.
2. Most foods will give the nutrition information per 100g. This is handy to compare with other foods, but may not be the amount of each serving. Check the serving size so you know how much you will actually eat.
3. Check the fat content. Aim for 5g of fat per 100g or less.
4. Check the ingredients list for the type of fats present. If you see things like ‘trans fats’ or ‘partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’, it may be a good product to avoid.
5. Check the carbohydrate total. Of that, how much is total sugars? Identify the various forms of sugar in the ingredients list. 5g of sugar per 100g is the maximum, try for less. Remember that 5g of sugar is likely to be one teaspoon.
6. Look at the fibre content. Foods with about 3-5g of fibre per 100g are considered ideal.
7. Check sodium levels. Aim for 150mgs or less per 100g.
8. Look at the ingredients list for additives and preservatives. If you are concerned with these or have a sensitivity to them, check their numbers in the following list.
Sadly, convenience foods have become a staple part of the modern diet. Food additives are common in most convenience foods like biscuits, canned goods, soups, ready-made meals, frozen foods, ice cream, breads, dairy foods, cereals – you name it. An additive is regarded as any ingredient not normally eaten as a food by itself or normally found as a natural ingredient of food. Additives can be used for preserving, adding colour or flavour to a product, and help the manufacturer to process ingredients.
It is now a legal requirement in most developed countries for all ingredients and additives to be listed according to weight. However, if the manufacturer did not add the additive (it may have been added before they received the ingredient), then they are not required to list it. How scary is that? It means that even though you have a list of ingredients on the label, they may not necessarily be all of the ingredients in that food.
A lot of additives have numbers as well as a name. The manufacturer may choose to list the name or number of the additive and is not required to list both. It may be a good idea to get to know what the different numbers mean so you can easily identify what they are. Here is a list of the most common food additives, some of which are known to cause adverse reactions in some people with symptoms like hyperactivity, upset stomach, suspected carcinogens and nausea to name a few.
100-181 – Colourings
These are colours added to make the product more appealing. Colours can be divided into two groups. There are natural colours extracted from plants or animals like caramels and carotene, or artificial colours made from azo dyes or coal tar dyes. There are people who are sensitive to some of these colourings.
200-297 – Preservatives and Food Acids
These are added to foods to slow down or prevent spoilage from bacteria or fungi. They maintain constant acid levels in the food.
300-381 – Antioxidants, Mineral Salts and Food Acids
Antioxidants slow down rancidity and colour change due to oxidation from air. Mineral salts increase plumpness, add texture and water holding capacity. Food acids maintain constant acid levels.
400-579 – Emulsifiers, Stablisers, Humectants, Mineral Salts, Vegetable Gums, Anti-caking Agents, Firming Agents, Flour Treatment Agents
Emulsifiers and stabilisers stop water and oil from separating, for example in margarines, chocolate, pastry and confectionery. Humectants are used in things like icings, cakes, soft tortillas and muesli bars to maintain moistness. Mineral Salts improve the texture of foods like deli meats and ham. Vegetable Gums thicken and gel foods like ice-cream and mayonnaise. Anti-caking agents make sure foods like flavour sachets and salt flow freely from the packet and don’t clump together.
620-637 – Flavour Enhancers
Flavour Enhancers bring out the flavour or aroma of a product, but do not contribute any flavour of their own. Number 621 (Monosodium Glutamate – MSG) is one of the most common examples. This chemical flavour enhancer is very questionable because of the health risks associated with it. Flavour enhancers are used in savoury foods like crackers, stock and gravy powders, instant noodle sachets and sauces.
900-1202 – Sweetening Agents, Bleaching Agents, Propellants (aerosols), Anti-foaming Agents, Glazing Agents
Sweeteners are used as a replacement of sugar in foods like soft drinks, yoghurts, chewing gum, protein powders and weight loss products. Aspartame (951) is one of the more commonly used, and there are questions about its safety. Xylitol (967) is used in some chewing gums. Sometimes two sweeteners are used together – one as an intense flavour hit and the other as a bulking agent.
1400-1450 – Thickeners
Thickeners are used to thicken products and give a smoother texture in sauces, soups, gravies, toppings and custards. They work in a similar fashion to cornflour and arrowroot that you would use at home.
1505-1520 – Sequestrants and Solvents
Sequestrants attach themselves to trace metals like iron, copper or calcium that would otherwise spoil the food. Solvents disperse or suspend elements.