It is over 10 years since the European regulation on nutrition and health claims came into force, with the aim of protecting consumers from misleading claims and encouraging healthier choices. However, is everything we see labelled on our food products exactly what it says on the tin, box, or packaging?
We tend to think of food as healthy or unhealthy, good for you or bad. Companies use this to their advantage in their branding and packaging, to give foods health halos that suggest they are good for us, when the reality may be more complicated than that.
Marketing claims such as ‘natural’, ‘high protein’ and ‘low fat’ lead many of us to overestimate how healthy a food is. It can also discourage us from reading the nutritional details on the back label where the finer details of the contents are found. Reading food labels can give you a lot of information about the food you are eating and help you to make a choice of whether you want to buy or eat it.
But with so much information on a label it can be hard to know what is helpful and what is not. After all, it is in a manufacturers interest to entice you to buy their product, so they are very savvy with what they want you to read first to ensure you add it to your supermarket trolley.
With many of us aspiring to live a healthy lifestyle but with a limited understanding of what that means nutritionally speaking, it is easy to be fooled by what the labels are telling us.
Here are some common ways the food industry has you fooled:
‘Low fat’ does not always equal healthy. In the UK, this label means the product must have less than 3g of fat per 100g. But when producers take out fat they often pile in sugar. Studies have shown that a ‘low fat’ label can trick us into eating more of the product, and the more sugar it has in and not ‘burned off’ it turns to body fat which is a direct influence on our weight and health.
Fats are often presented negatively in the media, perceived by most as a nutrient that should be avoided to promote health and maintain a healthy weight. Fats are an incredibly rich energy source, twice as much as carbohydrates & protein.
Take a look at these three examples of 500g of Natural Yogurt taken from Tesco.com on 26/02/2021.
You may be drawn to the ‘low fat’ or ‘0% fat’ labels because you want to decrease the level of fat in your diet. But when you investigate the nutritional information of these alternatives the sugar content in these supposedly ‘healthier’ versions it higher.
So what, you might think? Well since the 1980’s there has been a boom in low-fat products as the message got out that to improve our health, especially heart health, we needed to reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diets. This means cutting back on full fat dairy foods, red meat, and certain processed foods. But the food industry got to work replacing the animal fats in their products with unsaturated vegetable oils. Some of the changes they had to make included altering the structure of the vegetable oil so it could be used in the place of solid fats. To do this the food producers used a process called hydrogenation which created a solid or semi-solid fat thought to be more appropriate for their food processing needs.
Unfortunately, these hydrogenated fats increase levels of dangerous trans-fats which are both bad for the heart and our cholesterol. Although trans-fats can be found at low levels in some natural foods these man-made versions meant it was likely we were eating more of them. Since learning of the dangers of trans-fats the food industry and our UK supermarkets have been working hard to reduce levels of them in their products.
As well as altering the oils used for producing low-fat foods, manufacturers also found they had to increase the amount of sugar in their products so we continued to enjoy their taste and texture. All of this meant in the end the typical low-fat product tended to be high in sugars, might contain trans-fats and had a similar calorie count to the original product. All this can be seen from these three examples of natural yogurt.
We all need some fat in our diet, not least because it makes our food more palatable and tasty. Nutritionally, fats do more than simply supply calories. Certain fats, like those in nuts, seeds and oily varieties of fish provide essential fatty acids (including the omega-3 variety). These essential fats are important for maintaining healthy blood vessels, making hormones and for the correct functioning of our nervous system. The fat in our diet also helps us absorb certain vitamins, the fat-soluble ones, which include A, D, E and K. Following a very low-fat diet makes you more likely to be low in these vitamins and that can impact your immunity, limit the body’s ability to heal itself and have an influence on bone health. It is better to focus your diet on the healthier fats by including more fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils including avocado and olive.
As we have mentioned it when discussing products with reduced fat levels, we can move on to the misleading labels of products regarding sugar.
Similarly, to the ‘low fat’ label, ‘low-sugar’ foods can be high in fat and calories. The ‘no added sugar’ label does not guarantee a low sugar content. Companies use fruit juice concentrate as a sweetener, as it does not have to be labelled as ‘added sugar’ because it comes from a natural source, but it is essentially sugar.
Your daily sugar intake should be 20-35g. This is sugar in all forms, including what is found naturally in fruit, vegetables & dairy.
- Just one can of coke contains 8 teaspoons of sugar = 33.6g
- A bowl of cereal with milk contains up to 5 teaspoons of sugar = 21g
- A regular sized banana can have a minimum of 19g of sugar in it
Each of these is the recommended maximum or over your daily intake right there!!!
The first reason to ditch sugar is because it makes you fat – especially around your waist & stomach. It converts to fat quicker than fat itself because it raises your insulin levels which leads to fat storage. Sugar is a refined carbohydrate that hits our bloodstream almost immediately, giving you a hit of energy. Your pancreas then excretes insulin to stabilise your blood-sugar levels & this causes them to drop. The result is an energy crash (hence why you often feel tired a short while after eating or drinking sugary products). Your adrenal glands then secrete adrenaline in an attempt to boost your blood-sugar levels back up again. When your adrenal glands are overworked you become even more tired & reach for more sugary foods/drinks to boost your energy levels. If you regularly eat sugar, you’re literally on an energy roller coaster that will wear you out as well as increasing your body fat levels.
Sugar also makes it harder to lose weight because it prevents your body from burning fat. So no matter how much exercise you may do, if your sugar levels are too high you won’t see the benefits & are likely to store fat mainly around your stomach & waist.
- It robs your body of vitamins, causing dull hair & skin
- Causes emotional, mental & physical stress
- Weakens your immune system
- It is addictive
- Wears out your internal organs and is thought to be behind the increase in type 2 diabetes
The Worse Offenders
- White refined sugar (the type you get in packets & add to coffee).
- Fruit juices and squash (unless freshly squeezed yourself).
- White carbs (pasta, bread, rice & cereals. Wholewheat also contain sugars).
- Cakes, sweets, biscuits & ice cream.
- Low-fat foods, diet yoghurts, most breakfast cereals, health bars & energy drinks.
- Any ingredient ending in ‘ose’ such as sucrose, glucose, maltose, lactose, dextrose & fructose.
- Sweetners such as xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, erythitol, aspartame, saccharin, NutraSweet, Splenda, cyclamate & sucralose. Check your ‘sugar-free’ products for these.
Did you know that the manufacturer decides what a ‘serving’ is and this can vary between products?
Do you look at what the serving size of a product is?
Whatever it is, it does not mean that the serving size is always sensible, or what you think a serving is. For example, there may be six hot cross buns in a packet, but the label states that this is 12 servings. Who eats half a hot cross bun? You eat a whole one which equates to you getting double recommended serving of calories, fat and sugar (i.e., 1 hot cross bun is 2 servings).
Individual ingredients are listed on products in descending weight order – the one that weighs the most is listed first. If sugar, fat, or salt in the first few ingredients, this may not be the healthiest choice.
You may also see numbers in the ingredients list, but not all of these are in the bad books! For example, ‘E300’ refers to asorbic acid = vitamin C. This is extensively used in pre-cut fruit to stop it from browning. The benefits of looking at the ingredients list is that it makes it easy to check exactly what is in the food item and in what quantity. The cons are that some ingredients can be listed under a different name, for example, sugar can also be called: glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, molasses, syrup, hydrolysed starch, and invert sugar as I mentioned earlier.
While I do not expect you to analyse every item you purchase at the supermarket, I do encourage you to question what is marketed at you when it comes to nutrition. I am not one for counting every calorie, tracking the contents of each meal that passes my lips either, but I am extremely passionate about educating myself on what food sources do to our bodies and how it can fuel, heal, and even harm us.
Knowledge is power after all, and by arming yourself with as much knowledge in nutrition as you can gives you the power to make the choices that are right for you and not be fooled by the manufacturers own intentions. If you want to learn more I have a number of nutrition books that I recommend here, some have recipes, some the science behind nutrition, others have both; but what they all have is a no-nonsense and minimal jargon approach to what is really going on when we eat food. I hope you find them of interest.
For a more guided support with your nutritional wellness and how to gain a balance in all other aspects of your lifestyle, head to my Wellness Training to learn how to create better habits, improve your wellness and live a happier healthier life.
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