What’s behind the food labels?
Does reading food labels on the back of a packet completely baffle you? Do they seem confusing? Managing the intake of certain nutrients can prevent diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Therefore by being able to calculate the nutritional information provided, will enable you to take charge and gain health empowerment.
Traffic light labelling
A recent study on the “traffic light “labelling system in which menu items are designated as green, amber, or red based on calories, proved to have no effect on consumer purchases, and were classed as confusing. For instance, Coca Cola has only one red label (sugar) and the rest are green, therefore at a glance making it look not such a bad product.
However if you know how to read them, it might make it easier; colour-coded nutritional information tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.
- red means high
- amber means medium
- green means low
Choosing a green label will obviously mean you are choosing the healthiest option.
Amber means neither high nor low, so you can eat foods with all or mostly amber on the label most of the time. But any red on the label means the food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugars, and these are the foods that you need to be keeping an eye on and only eating in moderation.
We as a nation, are starting to realise that just looking at calories when choosing food is not enough, and that other nutrients have to be factored in when selecting a healthy meal.
Let me try to simplify the labels so that your choice of products can benefit your health:
Sometimes everything that follows will list quantities and percentages for one serving as well as for the entire bottle or container. Or it will say per 100g and the content could be 150g. Either way, if your reading a label and you don’t note how many servings it has, you could be thinking your eating a lot less than you actually are.
It is usually written in bold numbers, and is possibly the first thing that you look at. Although you do need to take into consideration the amount of calories that you consume within the day (average 2000 Cals per day), especially if you’re trying to lose weight, it very much depends on where those calories come from. For example if you have half an avocado or a processed shop bought low-calorie snack that have the same calorie content, you are going to get more nutrients, essential fatty acids and health benefits from the avocado, plus it will leave you feeling much more satisfied.
Taking in too many calories between meals is common and an easy way to go over your daily needs and gain weight, so make sure the label says your snack contains less than 200 calories per serving. Better still, stick with a piece of fruit and 5-6 nuts such as almonds or Brazil nuts (3-4), or you could try nut butter or hummus with crudités. This way it will increase your daily intake of fruit and vegetables and the calories remain in the ‘good’ fats.
Be aware of sugars in juices as you can find around 40 grams in each glass which is way too high. Mother Nature made delicious fruits to be eaten already complete with fibre which slows down the absorption of sugars in the body, so by removing the fibre you’re essentially concentrating all the sugars into a bottle or glass of juice. Otherwise don’t worry too much about the natural sugars in plain yoghurt or fruit, for example, as these are part of a healthy diet and do not need to be limited.
Natural sugars such as agave nectar, sucanat, molasses, maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, or brown rice syrup still all have a similar effect on the body as sugar and count towards your calorie intake, and too much can increase your risk of obesity and diabetes.
These are the kind that manufacturers add to foods to make them sweeter. You can you tell the difference between the two because they will be listed in the ingredients, while natural sugars aren’t. They can go by dozens of names, but a few of the most common offenders are high fructose corn syrup or anything ending in “ose” (like glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose). Companies have a legal requirement to list their ingredients in descending order of weight. Therefore when you read the list of contents, if sugar rates within the first 3 to 4 ingredients, discard, as this proves that sugar is a major constituent of this product. However food manufacturers may try to beguile the consumer by using different names/types of sugars in their products, so that they appear lower on the ingredient list which can trick consumers into thinking that a food doesn’t have that much sugar.
Pick packaged items that contain as little added sugar as possible. Still, finding a cereal or snack bar with 0 grams of sugar might be difficult. Aim for your food to contain fewer grams of sugar than fibre.
Total fat is broken into saturated fat and trans-fat. Trans-fat is typically bad, and saturated fat is generally seen as fine these days. Together, they should equal the number of grams next to total fat.
Avoid trans fat or otherwise known as partially hydrogenated oils, at all cost! This artificial fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil and can increase your risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Legally, a food is allowed to contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving and still list 0 grams on the nutrition panel, so it’s difficult to regulate your intake.
Try to limit your saturated fat to 10 percent of your total calories, but primarily these should come from whole, nutrient-dense fatty foods like avocados, lean meats, nuts and seeds, and not packaged or processed foods.
The recommended dose of sodium for an adult (and aged 11 years onwards) is 2.4g per day which is equivalent to 6g of salt (1 teaspoon of salt per day). The dose for children is much less as it can damage their underdeveloped kidneys. Cutting down on salt lowers blood pressure, which means that your risk of having a stroke or developing heart disease is reduced. If you do suffer with high blood pressure, be really careful of packaged foods such as snacks, crisps and soups as they love adding salt. I suggest making your own soup and freezing it in containers per serving.
Your daily goal for fibre should be between 20 to 35 grams. Fibre slows digestion to help you stay fuller longer and stave off blood sugar spikes, so you’re less likely to crave junk foods and snacks. A good rule of thumb: Aim for at least four grams of fibre per serving for grains e.g. whole-wheat pasta, and at least three grams of fibre per serving for packaged snacks or breads.
Compared to the macronutrients above, these include percentages and not grams. The law only requires vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron percentages to be listed, so consider anything else a friendly, nutritional nod from the manufacturer.
Some of the carbohydrates are broken down into sugars. These are generally simple carbs such as white pasta, white flour, cakes, pastries, white bread and rice etc. These have a detrimental effect on the body and spike the blood sugar levels increasing the risk of diabetes, if susceptible.
Ideally, carbs should make up about 25 percent of your total caloric intake, that’s filling one quarter of your plate or about 125 grams of carbs (If you’re eating 2,000 calories per day). The rest of the plate should be half filled with salad or vegetables and a quarter filled with protein. This also depends on the level of activity and exercise you are doing, as your carbs may need to be increased to increase energy output.
Basically if you can not pronounce a particularly long word on a label then it usually means it’s no good. Look for the least amount of ingredients in a packet. Special preservatives to avoid are butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Both preservatives are petroleum-based and are linked to cancer. Also avoid red, blue, or yellow food dyes, followed by a number as they’re made from petroleum, and have been linked to cancer in animals. Children can be particularly sensitive to food colour dyes so take extra care if you are buying for little ones. Besides, does a food really have to be a pretty colour?
Stay clear of artificial sweeteners namely, sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium, as they have a negative impact on your gut bacteria. This can effect your immune system as 70% of your body’s immune system is made up from the friendly bacteria in your gut. They are also thought to trick the body into thinking that it is getting sugar, but when the sugar molecules do not appear, it is thought that the body craves more sweetness!
I do hope this makes shopping a little easier. My advice would be to shop around the store and do not even venture into the middle where all the packaged foods are, but I realise that we all have busy lives and it just can not be avoided sometimes. Happy shopping!
- Tell us your healthy tips @eatbrighton
- Read Jayne’s blog on Fabulous Fats
- Read Jayne’s Blog about the Truth About Carbohydrates