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Nutrition Made Easy For Busy People

Supermarket Smart – What’s On The Label?

The disturbing revelations about the provenance of the “meat” in ready meals just keep coming, making us realise how little we know about where our food comes from and what contaminants or medication it may have been exposed to before it reaches our plate. Do you understand a food label when you read it? Do you even look at it? Many people don’t, as we tend to place a great trust in our supermarkets and food brands. Of course, we can only act on the basis of the information we have and horsemeat hasn’t been featuring on the label of any of these foods, but what about the information the food retailers do put on there? If you want to take more responsibility for what you’re eating, then now is the time to take a good look at the label.

A simple rule of thumb is that the more ingredients there are on the label, the more processed the food is likely to be. If there are items listed that you’ve never heard of or that sound overly complex, then the chances are that it’s some kind of synthetic ingredient or chemical compound that we’re not designed to be eating and that isn’t likely to be doing you any good. Bear in mind that the ingredients are listed in order of weight, so if the meat or fish content isn’t first or second on the list on your ready meal label, then something’s not quite right.

Sugar labelling is a real minefield, as sugar comes in many guises and is often hidden in different wording. Every time you see the words hydrolysed starch, fructose, glucose, modified starch, starch, carbohydrate, honey, molasses, corn syrup, maltose, sucrose, treacle, fruit syrup or maple syrup, this is sugar. While a little bit of sugar is fine, how many teaspoons would you like to be getting through each day? If your individual fruit yoghurt contains 12g of sugar, then this is the equivalent of 3 teaspoons. It doesn’t sound so healthy when it’s put like that, does it? It’s not just the obvious desserts and cakes that are high in sugar – take a close look at the label next time you’re thinking of buying pasta or curry sauce, a ready meal or a tin of soup, you might be surprised at what you see.

If you’ve fallen into the low-fat trap, then you need to be extra careful. Stripping out the fat from a food removes a lot of flavour, so many manufacturers add extra sugar instead. The so-called ‘skinny’ blueberry muffin from Starbucks actually contains more sugar than the classic version which really won’t help with weight-loss, if that is your goal. If you’re more concerned about your fat intake then be aware that to be truly low-fat a food must contain only 3g of fat per 100g. Watch out for ‘x% fat-free’ foods, as unless it’s 97% fat-free, then this is not low-fat, just lower in fat.

The guideline daily amount for salt is 6g per day and this is another potential area for confusion, despite all the traffic-light labelling that is used. It’s not helped by the fact that some manufacturers focus on sodium, which many of us think is the same thing as salt, but it isn’t.  You need to multiply sodium content by 2.5 to get the actual salt content. Processed foods and ready meals are major culprits when it comes to high salt content, and you need to make sure that you’re calculating it on the amount you’ll actually eat, not 100g or half the pack, which are the measures manufacturers often use, if you know that you’ll be eating the whole thing.

Finally, don’t be fooled by all the label trickery that goes on: there is a world of difference between ‘raspberry flavour’ where a product has been made to taste like raspberry by using artificial flavours and ‘raspberry-flavoured’ where the taste is required to come from real raspberries. Watch out for terms such as ‘farm-fresh’, ‘country’, ‘natural’ as they are all completely meaningless, yet we tend to be more attracted to these in the hope that they will be healthier. Don’t let the marketing fool you into not checking the label properly.

It would be good to think that the regulatory bodies and the food industry will get their house in order soon, but in the meantime, these few tips might encourage you to actively take notice of the information they do give us, so that you can have more control over what you’re putting into your body.