It can be really tricky to know what to look for and food companies use lots of smoke and mirrors to confuse you! For good health, it is important to know what you are eating. It is easy enough with fresh produce but when it comes to packaged foods it really does pay to stop and look at what they contain. Unfortunately you can’t believe all of the marketing hype written on the front, you really need to turn it over and look at the nutrition panel and ingredients list to see the real story. Here are some tips on what to look for:
- How much added sugar does it contain?
Look on the nutrition panel under sugar. 1 teaspoon of sugar is 4g, so if the product says it has 20g of sugar; it has five teaspoons of added sugar. To maintain good health, the World Health Organisation recommends that adults eat no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day.
- Does the label say it is fat free, or low fat?
If it says 99% fat free, isn’t that a good thing? No, natural fat is not bad for you, in fact it has health benefits. Fat is what gives food flavour and it is also what is responsible for triggering the message to your brain that you feel satisfied or full. Removing the fat from natural foods like yoghurt and milk is not healthy. You need the fat to absorb fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A, D E and K and you also require saturated fat to get calcium into your bones. When fat is removed, the product loses its taste, requiring the fat to be replaced by sugar or artificial sweeteners which will stop you from feeling full, promote continued sweet cravings and have the potential to cause many health issues.
- Added vitamins and minerals; yay or nay?
Vitamins and Minerals are good if they naturally occur in that food and are in their natural state (eg fruit, vegies, fish or eggs). In cereals or other packaged products it just means that they have thrown in some synthetic vitamins or minerals (that in all likelihood can’t be absorbed well) to an otherwise highly refined unhealthy product devoid of nutrients to make it look good. These added nutrients, are rarely of any benefit to your health.
This is called “health washing” it is when the marketing companies distract you from how awful the food is by making health claims on the packaging! Vitamins and minerals in real foods come with all of the required co-factors to allow you to absorb and utilise them easily (nature has its own special way of delivering nutrients that a factory can’t compete with).
- How to understand the ingredients list?
Rule of thumb is that if you have to learn to understand the ingredients list, it is not good for you. If you can’t understand the name of the ingredients, do you really want to be eating that? You should recognise the ingredients as actual food!
Ingredients are listed in order of what the food contains most of, so if within the first 5 ingredients listed you see words like glucose, sugar, corn syrup, fruit syrup or fructose – you know that the biggest ingredients in that product are sugar – put it back on the shelf now! If it contains vegetable oils such as canola or hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils/fats, also put it back on the shelf (these are highly inflammatory seed oils).
If you need to have lessons in how to understand what the ingredients are, if you need a biochemistry degree to understand the ingredients, that is not food, it is a “food like product” and your body will not thank you for eating it!
- How to read the Nutrition Panel?
The ingredients list is the most important and, you already know how to identify how much sugar is in the product by reading the nutrition panel, (divide sugar by 4).
Nutrition information is listed per serve as well as per 100g or 100mL. There is no industry or legislative standard as to what a serving size of food is which can make it very confusing. One manufacturer may state that a serving size of jam is 20 grams, while another may state that a serving size is 10 grams. If you were to compare these jams by the serving size, the second one would appear to have less sugar.
This is why it is important to use the amounts per 100gm/mL when comparing two similar foods for nutrient and sugar content such as two yoghurts.
Some soft drink manufacturers claim that a normal sized can is equal to 1.25 servings. This could be considered confusing or misleading because you are likely to consume the whole can.
- It’s all natural, that’s good, right?
Well that depends, if it is a piece of fruit or a vegetable the answer is yes but you don’t need a label to know it is natural. If it comes in a packet and a marketing company has been hired to make it look natural by calling it “all natural” or putting a picture of a farm on the front, it is likely a long way from natural!
Again this is health washing, there is no standard for what natural means and marketers know that word makes you feel good about buying their products. A bag of snakes or jellies might be “natural” but so is a bowl of sugar, would you sit and eat that or give that to your small children to eat, no!
In summary, just eat real food’; ensure that is what you eat most of the time! The healthiest foods are seasonal and local. We are blessed in the Penrith Valley, Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas; we have great Farmer’s Markets and great opportunities all over the Hawkesbury region to buy from the “farm gate”. Where you can, buy your produce from the farmers; this will support your health as well as support the local economy. It is a win win situation! Look up your local Farmer’s Market.
Initially reading food labels is time consuming but ultimately you will learn very quickly which brands to use and how to identify a good quality product. Your health will reap the benefits!
Fiona Kane, Nutritional Medicine Practitioner, Holistic Counsellor and Life Coach at the Informed Health Nutritional Wellbeing Centre