Food labels and packages can be confusing. Almost every single food in the supermarket boasts some kind of health benefit or claim. Diet sodas are ‘sugar-free’. Salad dressings come in ‘fat-free’ versions.
But how do you know how to make the right choices? These are the 3 simple steps I take when reading food labels in the supermarket to decide whether a product is right for me.
Step 1 – Look For The Additives
First up, we look at the ingredient list to see if it contains any additives. Additives include preservatives, emulsifiers, food acids, colours and flavours.
Not all additives are equal. Some products use natural preservatives such as vinegar or acetic acid. Others source colours and flavours from fruits and vegetables.
But there are some that come with serious health implications. Some artificial colours aren’t even allowed to be used in supermarket brands because of the evidence that they affect children’s health.
If a label states there are no artificial colours or flavours, this is regulated by a body that checks the ingredients to ensure it’s compliant. So if you’re looking at products that do use colours and flavours, opt for those that have this label.
Additives may also be listed as E-numbers on the packaging. If there are more numbers than there are recognisable ingredients, you might want to give it a skip!
Step 2 – Spot The Sugars
You might look at the nutrition panel and see that a product has 10g of sugar per 100g. But there is more to sugar than the percentage. An important question is whether it’s naturally occurring sugars in the ingredients, or if it’s added sugars.
Ingredients such as fruit contains natural sugars. But fruit also has plenty of other beneficial nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and antioxidants to go along with the sugar.
On the other hand, when you see ingredients such as sucrose, glucose, syrup, sugar, brown sugar or coconut sugar – those are added sugars.
Another point to consider is where sugar lands on the ingredient list. A product’s ingredient list goes in order, so the first ingredient makes up the greatest percentage, and the last makes up the least. Some products will list sugar as the first ingredient, which means it’s more sugar than anything else!
This makes it easy to compare brands. One brand might have no added sugars and only contain sugar from ingredients like fruit, but another might have one, two or more types of added sugars.
Step 3 – Minimise Hidden Additives & Chemicals
As a food technologist, the one thing that I learned is that sometimes, foods can have hidden additives and chemicals.
Food producers often use additives called processing aids. Because these additives don’t perform a specific function in the final product, they are not required to put these on the label.
But in some cases, these additives may still be present in the final product. So even if you’re avoiding the additives that you or your family are sensitive to, you might still be exposed to them.
The way that I get around these hidden additives? I buy the supermarket brands! I know that Woolworths do their due diligence when it comes to processing aids, making sure products have no residue of these chemicals.
It can get easy to get swept up in food labels. But the most important point to consider when it comes to your health is the composition of that food. So take some time and compare products – you might even find out that the cheaper product is actually the better one!