If you think your reduced calorie cheese is going to help you lose weight, or an “all natural” label means it’s the healthy option, think again. Food labels are full of information, some words you may not even understand, but it is important that you know what to look for to prevent yourself from falling into the “reduced calorie” trap and being fooled by clever marketing. I am going to share with you what I believe to be the most important things to look out for on your food labels and how to make sense of them to make informed choices for you and your family.
The legislations behind food labelling and what law requires are different per country, but the list I am about to share with you is what I believe, based on what I have learnt, is most important to take note of.
- Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.
Therefore if sugar is one of the first ingredients then you can bet your bottom dollar it’s FULL of sugar
- It is not required by law to list nutritional information unless a specific nutritional claim is made
- Nutritional claims are a sales pitch and it is important to note that if the manufacturer makes a nutritional claim the product must follow these prescribed rules:
- There must be sufficient quantities of the nutrient claimed to offer the benefit
- It must be in a form the body can use
- Must be based on evidence regulated by a food regulation authority
- Calorie reduced does not mean low calorie.
For a manufacturer to list their product as “calorie reduced” it only needs to be reduced by 30%.
- Low/reduced fat often means it is replaced with sugar and does not mean it is low calorie or necessarily healthy.
Where possible, have full fat versions but always remember for every 1g of fat there are 9 calories compared to 4 calories in 1g of carbohydrate or protein. See more about calorie counting and macros here. Even though there are studies that suggest saturated fat is good for you, or at least, not bad for you, does not mean fat should be consumed recklessly. Yes, eat fat. No, don’t eat allllll the fat!
In this image take note of what “reduced fat”, in this scenario, does to the carb and calorie count. Carbs double and calories stay the same.
- No added sugar does not mean sugar free
Sometimes the product will claim no added sugar but you will see Maltodextrin.
According to Health Line Maltodextrin has 4 calories per gram — the same amount as sucrose, or table sugar.
Like sugar, your body can digest maltodextrin quickly, so it’s useful if you need a quick boost of calories and energy. However, maltodextrin’s glycemic index is higher than table sugar, ranging from 106 to 136. This means that it can raise your blood sugar level very quickly.
We must also remember that fruits contain sugar, so just because something is 100% apple juice with the label “no added sugar”, it can still contain more sugar in the form of fructose than a Coca Cola.
See graph comparing sodas and fruit juice here, VERY interesting.
- Low sugar must be less than 5g/100g or 2.5g/100ml
- Sugar free must be less than 0.5g/100g/100ml
- +15g/100g is considered high in sugar
- If label claims to be wholegrain then wholegrain MUST be one of the first ingredients, otherwise it isn’t really wholegrain.
Manufacturers can claim something is wholegrain regardless of % present but they must list the %.
The food industry spends billions every year on marketing.
They use photography tricks to make food look bigger and better; they include images of happy, healthy looking families, and even take it as far as using characters from your children’s favourite TV character to promote sugar-laced cereals.
Food marketers are incredibly talented at manipulating the rules, and cleverly wording things to sell almost exactly the same product under the guise of a nutritional “benefit”.
It’s like labelling sugar as gluten free.
In the TV documentary Fed Up, there is one scene that reduced me to tears (actually there were a few)!
There was this young boy desperate to lose weight, and his parents wanted to help him do so. His mum was so proud to tell the camera she had bought healthier option for her child; a high sugar cereal labeled as “low fat”. It made me so sad because here was this mother trying to help her child, but with all the wrong tools; which could happen to anyone.
This is why I believe SO MUCH in balance.
I want to encourage people to eat as many whole foods as they can, to make food at home as much as possible and not to demonise one particular food group.
I don’t want to tout any one specific diet. I want you to challenge the things we have been made to believe and to start asking questions.
In the spirit of that here is an article disputing some of the things mentioned in the Fed Up documentary I just mentioned.
How do we read our labels?
Some manufacturers make use of the traffic light system by colour coding as follows;
Red = High in fat, sugars and salt
Amber = Medium
Green = Low
In general we should read it as follows;
Red = Enjoy once in a while and approach with caution
Amber = Slow down
Green = Go for it
If there is no red, amber and green helpers, then follow this checklist:
- Check serving size. I once forgot to do this and ended up eating a salad that was 600 calories when I thought it was 200 calories, so I bulked up the meal with all these other things and ended up eating about 800 calories. WHOOPS!
- Check that fat, cholesterol and sodium is limited (especially trans fats).
- Look for vitamins and fibre
- Make sure that the carbohydrate content isn’t majority sugar.
Why should you always check for sugar?
We as a population are consuming way too much sugar, amongst other things! But sugar is hidden in so many things that sometimes we think we don’t eat sugar while in fact we are consuming way more than our recommended daily allowance.
- If most of your carbohydrates come from sugar then there will be little/no fibre
- Sugar is quickly absorbed by the body in its simplest form
- If it is one of the first ingredients you can be sure there is a lot present
- You don’t need to have ZERO sugar but it’s important to watch how much you are consuming.
The reason I feel this is so important to discuss is that we are bombarded with food trends and diets and I just want to keep to the basics.
I don’t want parents to feed their kids coco pops every morning because they are low fat (o.4g fat/100g compared to 36.5g sugar/100g), I want people to be empowered with their own knowledge.Sugar is ONE problem, not THE problem. We consume too much in general and too much of the wrong thing. Stop pin pointing one food group as the reason we struggle with obesity.
Weight control problems are down to psychology, education, motivation and discipline.
“We really need to stop making recommendations about food based on theories about one nutrient in food. It’s crucial at this time to understand that it’s about food as a whole, and not about single nutrients.” – Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian (from a study published in the journal Circulation)
Balance your lives, know what you’re eating and be informed.