The supermarket shelves are jam packed with different products but how many of them are actually healthy for you. The vast majority have been processed or altered from their original state in some way which means that it is essential to be able to read labels. It’s the only way to really know what you are eating. The ability to read food labels is becoming more relevant in people’s lives today, as allergies and food intolerances become more prevalent thus placing increasing restrictions on what can and can’t be eaten.
Nutritional information panels on food labels are there to give us all the nutritional information about the product. Nutrition facts usually list values for energy, fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and protein but they may also include certain vitamins or minerals like sodium. Just as importantly, a list of the food ingredients should also appear on the label so you know exactly what you’re eating. Sounds great!… but it’s not always that simple as some of the main ingredients have a number of alternative names which consumers are not always familiar with. In a world where more and more of our food is processed, deciphering the label is an invaluable skill that helps us determine how nutritious the food we eat truly is.
Reading Between the Lines
Manufacturers produce processed foods for our convenience and endeavour to make their products the most competitively priced on the market. This means that some ingredients may not be the best for us nutritionally, even though the food tastes great and is fairly priced. Unfortunately some manufacturers also make an effort to disguise certain ingredients on the label by using numbers, letters and alternative names to represent additives, preservatives and flavourings.
Some experts believe that the harder a label is to read the more important it is for you to know what’s in the product.
Common ingredients in disguise
This can be included in products in a variety of forms, not all of which are obvious. Even if a products states ‘no added sugar’ this doesn’t mean that the product is 100% sugar free as it may contain natural sugars. Check labels for the other names below that are used for sugar. Also, by checking the total sugar values on the nutritional panel you can work out how much sugar you are really consuming.
Other names for sugar – Beet sugar, brown sugar, evaporated cane juice, cane sugar, *corn syrup, barley malt, rice malt, date sugar, dextrose, *diastase, *diastatic malt, *fructose, fruit juice, glucose, golden syrup, grape sugar, *high fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, malt extract, maltodextrin, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, agave syrup, treacle, turbinado sugar, maple syrup.
There are a number of different types of fat which can be included in products. Trans fats and hydrogenated fats are formed as a result of food being processed. Great for food manufacturers but not so good for our bodies. Trans and hydrogenated fats are far worse than saturated fats for the heart and for general health. Look out for the alternative names below which are used for fat in ingredient lists and check the label to work out which types of fat you are really eating.
Different names for fats – kremelta, *margarine, *hydrogenated fat, butter fat, lard, milk solids, copha, *palm oil, *shortening, coconut oil, coconut cream/milk, cocoa butter, cream, soybean oil, safflower oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, rice bran oil, grape seed oil, *canola oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, olive oil. (Some oils may also be genetically modified making them less desirable because of the negative affect they have on our cellular DNA)
Salt Everybody needs salt as part of a healthy diet. Too much salt though can have a detrimental effect on health. This mineral, known for its preserving qualities, is often found in large amounts in highly processed fast foods; however sugars are frequently added to make it undetectable so checking the total sodium on the label is the best way to find this out. Just like sugar and fat, salt has a number of names and even preservative codes that it hides behind.
Different names for salt – sodium, *monosodium glutamate (MSG) – also known as flavour enhancer 621 or 623, sea salt, rock salt, Celtic salt, Himalayan salt
We generally think of whole foods such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs when referring to protein. However, protein can also be isolated from plant foods and used to make protein enriched foods, or alternative foods for vegetarians. Due to their processed nature, not all of these are good for us. Deli meats also, are not wholefoods. They contain the chemical preservatives, nitrates and nitrites, to preserve their colour, so keep an eye out for these as well.
Different names for protein – *hydrolised pea protein, *hydrolised soy protein, *hydrolised whey protein, textured vegetable protein (TVP), isolated whey protein, albumin, egg protein, powdered egg white, quorm.
Carbohydrates are metabolised by the body into sugars and used for energy or, if you consume more than you need, the excess is stored as fat. Therefore it is important to check out the total carbohydrate content on the label. Also, when found in processed foods, carbohydrates are highly refined which means they have had the goodness taken out of them, unless they are listed on the label in their whole form i.e. whole oats in muesli.
Used as an alternative to sugar, sweeteners are used in foods marketed at diabetics and people trying to lose weight. Sweeteners can also make a product ‘healthier’ for us, but not all sweeteners are created equal; artificial sweeteners are now recognised as being toxic to the body and best avoided.
Different names for sugar alternatives – stevia, agave, ethyl maltol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lacitol, isomalt, erythritol, *aspartame now renamed *AminoSweet, *saccharine, *sucralose.
* These are the unhealthiest forms of each food type.
Fronting Up – What Selling points really mean.
The front side or display side of products which you see first when they are on the shlef, can be just as misleading if you don’t know what the term actually means. A lot of the words such as Lite, reduced fat, and even sugar free are just marketing terms there to get your attention. They give the impression that the product is one thing, but look closely and you may find its not what it seems!
Lite – It has a number of meanings which can make it quite confusing. It may mean the product is lighter in colour or flavour, has less calories, fat or sugar than an original formula, or, when on potato chips, can also mean that they are cut thinner than the original formula, but are not necessarily lower in fat. If unsure, reading the label and comparing with similar products should give you the answer.
Reduced Fat – simply means that it has less fat than other similar products, but may still contain a substantial amount of fat. When the fat is removed this can also affect flavour and satiety, so often other ingredients such as sugar or flavour are added to overcome this problem.
Sugar Free – usually means that an alternative sweetener is used, however this can be either an artificial or a natural sweetener.
The Heart Tick – means that the product is approved by the Heart Foundation but does not mean that it contains less fat or sugar. Again, this is where reading the label will give an accurate picture.
Whew… hopefully that wasn’t too difficult. But if you are still unsure then remember these 3 easy tips:
If in doubt, make it yourself from scratch.
Shop around the outer perimeter of the supermarket where all the ‘real’ foods are.
Avoid foods with ingredients that you don’t recognise.