The labels on the front of processed foods are made attractive, with colourful packaging and fancy buzzwords to appeal to consumers. Evidence shows that front labels of food products are misleading in most cases. Millions are spent by brands to make their products attractive. A lot is also splurged on advertising through print, television, and social media to promote their products as healthy. Although there are guidelines by food regulatory authorities to ensure consumers are not misled or duped, food companies often find loopholes and know how to bypass some of these guidelines and rules.
In a world where there are adulterated and processed foods available everywhere, consumers need to be wise and careful before purchasing any food product. In general, words on the front of the package are often just marketing claims. Information on the nutrition facts panel and ingredients list (usually found on the side or back of packaging) are the best way to tell if something is a healthy choice. Food labels can be tricky and it is important to understand what these labels are actually telling us. Many consumers have difficulty understanding nutrition labels.
Below are a few tips and guidelines to avoid being misled by labels, so that you can make informed food choices.
Serving sizes listed on packaging may be misleading and unrealistic. Manufacturers often list a much smaller amount than what most people consume in one serve. If you’re interested in knowing the nutritional value of what you’re eating, you need to multiply the serving given on the back, by the number of servings you consumed.
‘Low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb’ foods have a legal limit to how many calories, grams of fat, or carbohydrates they can contain per serving. However, if a serving size is very small, you may end up eating multiple servings in one sitting, ultimately consuming the same amount of fat, calories, and carbs as the regular version of the food.
‘Multigrain’ sounds very healthy but it only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. Unless the product is marked as whole grain, it is possible the grains are all refined grains, which have likely lost important nutrients during processing.
A label that says ‘Organic’, says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar. Products declared organic must be produced without conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, biotechnology, or ionising radiation. Organic animals must be fed organic feed and not be injected with hormones or antibiotics. It is important to remember, organic foods may still have the same number of calories, fats, proteins, and carbs as a nonorganic food.
‘Fat-Free’, When fat content is removed, the process leaves the food bland and tasteless. Fat might be listed as shortening, coconut, palm oil, cream, sour cream, vegetable oils and fats, hydrogenated oils, full cream milk powder,etc. To appeal to the tastebuds of consumers, some companies may add sugar, refined carbs, salt, emulsifiers, and thickeners which add a high amount of calories to the body. This can defeat the whole purpose if one is actually going “low fat” to lose weight.
‘Zero trans fat’, this phrase means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” Foods that claim to contain zero trans fat can actually contain up to 0.5 grams per serving, and this number quickly adds up with multiple servings.
‘Fortified or enriched’ means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy. For example breakfast serials, many of which are high in sugars.
‘Gluten-free’ doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar. Besides, people with no gluten intolerance would hardly benefit from using such products, especially when most of them have low-fibre content.
‘Made with whole grains’ Products with these claims, may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list. If whole grains are not in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible.
‘No added sugar’ Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. It only means the product is free of sucrose, or table sugar, but not other forms of sugar. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added.
Sugar may not be listed as sugar at times. They are masked under various names such as brown sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, disaccharides, fructose, glucose, honey, fruit syrup, lactose, maltose, mannitol, maple syrup, molasses, monosaccharides, raw sugar, sorbitol or xylitol. Watch out for these if you are avoiding sugary products.
‘Cholesterol free’ products might be 100% cholesterol free, but still contain fat. Cholesterol is only found in animal products. Fruits, vegetables, grains and all other plant foods do not have any cholesterol at all. Vegetable oils contain no cholesterol, but they are 100% fat.
Low salt’ ‘low sodium’, means the product has less than 5mg per serving. Check the Nutrition Facts label and bear in mind this figure is the amount of sodium per serving, not necessarily the entire package. So, make sure to check the serving size first. Salt might be listed as baking powder, booster, celery salt, garlic salt, sodium, meat or yeast extract, onion salt, MSG, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphite, sodium nitrate, nitrate or stock cubes.
Nutrition labels often contain a list of ‘vitamins and minerals’ present in the food. This does not necessarily mean the food is healthy. They are not as important to focus on, because it is more important to eat high-quality whole foods to ensure you are getting sufficient of these faster. For example, different coloured vegetables and fruits.
Try looking for products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients and be skeptical of foods with long lists of ingredients. If the first ingredients include refined grains, a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is unhealthy.
Make sure products high in carbs have a good amount of dietary fibre in them (more than 3gms per serving).
If a food needs a long ingredient list for us to understand what it is, it might not be the best thing to put into our bodies. They are likely processed and contain a lot of preservatives. Choosing foods with less number of ingredients and being able to understand the name of the ingredient, is a good way to ensure the food you are about to eat is less processed.
The best way to ensure good food choices and good health is to avoid or limit the consumption of processed foods. After all, whole food doesn't need an ingredients list. Prepare meals at home for higher nutritional value and a healthier body. Choosing whole grains and pulses, fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, fish, eggs, etc. that don't require nutrition labels is a more effective way to protect our health.