How many times were you tricked into buying a ‘healthy’ product? You get to cash point and reach out for that cereal bar? It contains oats, fruits and nuts; must be good for you. Or that muesli packet with sugar and salt reduced? Surely, that’s OK?
Are food labels credible? Should you believe what they say?
Yes; if you read between the lines, you will find that what they say is correct. You just have to understand what they say and the way they say it.
Manufacturers are smart. They use words which grab your attention to make you believe the product is good for you. They do not lie, because that would get them into trouble with the law. They simply use generic terms and take advantage of any loophole in the law.
For example, if a packet of muesli says “no sugar added” that’s just what it means – no extra sugar was added. That is not to say the product is not high in sugar.
If a product says “vitamin enriched” does that make it healthy? Not necessarily. Have a look at the rest of the ingredients and check things like fat (especially saturated), salt and sugar.
What information should you find on a food label?
By law a food label should give you the following information.
- contact details of the manufacturer
- country of origin of the product
- list of ingredients in descending order
You have a right to know where a product is coming from, especially if it contains produce such as meat or fish. You should also find details of the manufacturer, should you need to contact them.
Look at the list of ingredients. You will notice it is in descending order. This gives you a clear indication of what are the main ingredients and their quantities. In the image below you will notice that the main ingredient in this quinoa porridge is not quinoa flour.
Flavouring does not mean the product contains that ingredient. A strawberry-flavoured yogurt will not contain strawberries; you will only find strawberry flavouring listed.
Check the ingredients in bold font. These are the ingredients which you may be allergic to or cause you some form of intolerance.
The label should indicate any process the food has gone through. Is the product dehydrated, smoked?
You will also find dates on a food label. Very often you will have two dates – the manufacturing date and the “best before” or “use by” date. These dates are meant to indicate whether the food is good for human consumption. The “best before” date means just that – a product is best before the date indicated. The “use by” date is used for perishables; food which will not be good to eat past the date shown.
What should you look out for in the nutritional information?
After checking the list of ingredients for allergens, go to the nutritional information and check the salt, sugar and fat content in the product.
Aim at keeping your sugar levels to no more that 5% of your total energy intake and salt at a maximum level of 6g per day.
Another ingredient to avoid is saturated fat. These fats are harmful to the body and can cause heart disease.
More often than not serving sizes are misleading and far from realistic. You look at the front of a packet and think a bowl of cereal gives you 130 calories. Take a closer look – it says “per 30g serving”. Weigh 30g of muesli and let me know if you think it’s a realistic serving.
Very often, the serving size shown on the front of packet is misleading. Follow the nutritional information per 100g of product for accurate data.
Know your terms
‘Low fat’ – < 3g of fat / 100g of product
‘Fat free’ – < 0.15g of fat / 100g of product
‘Salt reduced’ – < 0.5g of sodium / 100g product
‘Organic’ – a minimum of 95% organic product
‘Alcohol free’ – product can contain up to 0.05% alcohol
Are food labels a legal requirement?
Yes; food labels are mandatory by law. As of 13th December 2016, new legislation has come into force in Europe to ensure that the information on food labels is clear and not misleading in any way.
My thanks go to:
The British Nutrition Foundation