Food labelling can be very confusing for most of us, but it is an important tool that enables us to make an informed choice about the packaged food we purchase. Often food labels contain a lot of information, which is not always well understood. This information, if understood, can be the best way for you to make good food choices though. You need to know what ingredients are actually in the item and how to interpret the marketing spin of manufacturers.
Fresh foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, lentils, beans and nuts are not required to carry nutrition information. Also, foods that offer few nutrients, like coffee, tea and spices don’t have to supply this information. However, some producers still will voluntarily. These fresh foods should always be your first option. If you are looking at packaged items though, you need to be able to know what ingredients are in the item and what you want to avoid.
All packaged foods must list all ingredients on the label. They must be descending in order of majority ‘by weight’ at time of manufacturing. That means the ingredient that is the majority ‘by weight’ must be listed first, all the way down to the smallest included ingredient by weight being listed last. Therefore if fat, sugar, or salt are at the start of the list, then there is a greater proportion of that ingredient. The only exception is water. If a multi-component ingredient, for example a sauce, is less than 5% of the total, the individual ingredients of that sauce don’t need to be listed, but can just be listed as the sauce. If there is an additive in the multi-component ingredient, though, it still must be listed.
Food additives also have to be listed, including their identifying number. These are included on the labelling for those of us who may have a sensitivity, so that we can easily identify them. Here is the full food additive list as a reference.
Food labels must also list the serving size in relation to the nutrient information. This must include the information for a 100 gram serving. This allows the consumer to calculate the nutrient information for the amount they actually eat, as it may not be the same as the serving size. For example, if the nutrient serving size is for 100 grams and you eat 50 grams, then you need to halve the nutrient information. If the item consumed is in fact 250 grams and the serving size is only 100 grams, then you need to multiply the nutrient values by 2.5. Keep in mind that most packaging will be more than the one serving of 100 grams. For this reason most labels include the number of servings (number of 100 gram servings), generally above the average serving size.
As well as confusing labelling, the nutrition and health claims on packaging can also mislead the consumer. When you are in the supermarket you are often bombarded with claims such as low-fat, reduced sugar or ‘lite’. These are ploys to convince the individual that they are making good food choices, when in fact they are not. These terms are called ‘nutrition claims’. Here in Australia the nutrition claims must meet guidelines set by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The following common nutritional claims must meet these guidelines:
No added sugar – products must not contain added sugar, but may contain natural sugars.
Reduced fat or reduced salt – should be at least a 25% reduction from the original product.
Low Fat – must contain less than 3% fat for solid foods (1.5% for liquid foods).
Fat Free – must be less than 0.15% fat percentage of fat. Remember 80% fat-free is the same as 20% fat, which is a high fat percentage.
Low salt foods – 120mg of sodium or less per 100g.
Light, or ‘lite’ foods started to appear back in the 1990’s. They had less fat than the original version, but the drop wasn’t enough to make a huge difference. Originally, light or lite products may have featured in yogurts and milks. These days the terms light or lite can be found on ice cream, cheese, spreads, coconut milks and creams, soft drinks, sauces, biscuits, and beer. I’m sure there’s more.
Health claims are also regulated. Currently the only health claim that can be made and used on packaging about the food and its relationship between it and a serious disease is the claim that folate is of benefit to women. For example, that folate consumption may reduce the risk of having a baby with a neural tube defect. Often other claims may be found on products like ‘may help reduce the risk of heart disease’. These claims have to use a lot of ‘may’ and ‘might’ because they can only be general statements. If not backed with heavy research and statistics then they won’t be able to meet the guidelines.
Since eating paleo and having a more whole food approach when buying my ingredients, I don’t have nightmares about food labels anymore. My fortnightly trip to the supermarket and health food shop may now include reading one label of a new product I have spotted, or trying to find an alternative to an out-of-stock regular I purchase. In truth though, most of the food I buy doesn’t have labels.
If I can, I avoid buying items; that have a preservative other than salt, that have any added sugar be it natural or alternative (especially the alternatives), any colours or additives. Lets face it, real whole food just doesn’t need it. I don’t buy tinned tomatoes. I do buy jarred tomato paste (Leggos no salt is 100% tomato…thats it. No preservatives, no nothing). I do buy whole seeded mustard (with salt and water). I do buy tins and tins of full fat coconut cream and milk. I do buy almond milk (unsweetened variety). I always buy items with full fat, never anything with ‘lite/light’ written on it. I don’t buy anything with a health claim. Lets face it, there’s not a lot that I buy from the middle section of the supermarket.
If I’m looking at a gluten-free option for the kids, I’ll also avoid the ones labelled ‘gluten-free flour’. If it’s not listing the particular starch then I don’t want it. I want to know whats in it rather than guess. Most of these ‘gluten free flours’ are also a blend. My kids have been overheard in the supermarket, reading the ingredients list on a gluten free product and stating “why do they put all this rubbish in it mum, it just doesn’t need it” or “we could just make that at home”. Yes, I do love them even more at those moments. They both still have a weakness for chocolate and aren’t perfect, but it shows me that with a little education, kids do get it too.
It may take a little extra time at the beginning, and a little more effort to resist something because it contains an ingredient you have chosen not to consume. The more educated you can be about the food you are buying, preparing, and enjoying, the more empowered you can be to make a positive choice.
Hopefully some of this information can help you understand those food labels better, but real whole food doesn’t need any of the hard work.