True lies: What do food labels really mean?

It sounds like a tawdry topic... a scandalous subject torn from today's tabloid headlines. How Bad Foods Happen To Good People

But it's a subject near and dear to my heart. The "it" I refer to is the nutritional labels that by law are there for the reading on practically any food or drink you buy at the corner shop.

The nutrition labelling is there for a good reason. But how many of you actually take the time to turn over your product - please make sure the cap is on tight before you do - and check out ingredients, serving size, calories, etc. etc. etc? I didn't think so.

What's that you say? The box proclaims in big bold letters "Natural" or "Fortified" So it has to be good, right? Wrong. The reason I labelled this article ‘True Lies’ is because the manufacturers are using words that are basically true to describe the food and make us believe the contents are a heck of a lot better than they really are.

You can't be a healthy eater if you don't know what you're eating so I want to make a label reader out of you. So author of the brand new The Last Diet Book Standing, is here with her spin on labels.

Kerry McLeod, fitness expert and author, says, "Don't believe the label. One of the biggest mistakes consumers make is believing what they read on the front label. Manufacturers can basically lie and make you believe the product is good for you even though it's really bad."

As a sports nutrition certified instructor, wife and mum, Kerry takes her label-reading very seriously.

"I thought I was feeding my family healthily," Kerry tells us. "Then I started reading the labels on foods a bit more closely and I was shocked at what they told me. What I thought were single servings were really two or three servings. Portion distortion is perhaps the biggest problem."

So you think that pizza is the perfect size for you dinner? Have a look on the back of the box to see that a serving is actually a third, a quarter – or less – of that pizza.

So how can you avoid being tricked by food labels? Glad you asked. Take it away Kerry...

"I recommend that you speed read through the front label of food packages because manufacturers can imply that a food item is very nutritious, even if it’s not. However, the ingredients list and the nutrition information panel can give you the clues you need to figure out whether a food item is a wise choice."

A few front label tricks to watch out for:

• “Made with wheat, rye, or multi-grains” implies that it’s a good source of whole grains. Unfortunately, manufacturers are not legally required to say how much "whole grain" is in the product on the front label. Look for the word “whole” before the grain on the “ingredients list” to ensure that you are actually getting a “whole grain” product.

• There is no law to say what “lite” or “light” means on a food label so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is lighter in fat or calories. Sometimes there is very little difference between foods that claim to be “light” and foods that don’t. For example, a “light” version of one brand of crisps might have the same amount of calories and fat as a standard version of another brand.

• Recommendations have been set out for manufacturers by the Food Standards Agency in relation to “low fat” or “fat-free claims”. “Low fat” should only be used in foods that contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 grams. “Fat-free” should be used when foods contain only a tiny amount of fat – less than 0.15 grams per 100 grams.

• “Natural”, “made from natural” or “pure” simply means the manufacturer started with a natural source. Once processed, the food may not resemble anything natural or pure.

• Labels that read, “organically grown, organic, pesticide-free” say very little about the nutritional value or safety of the product. Trust only those labels that say “certified organically grown.”

• If a food claims to be “free from artificial preservatives” it may contain other ingredients that have a preserving effect (such as salt).

• Don’t confuse fruit drinks with fruit juice “Fruit drinks” contain little to no fruit and a lot of sugar. Instead, look for products that say “100% fruit juice”.

• Labels that say “sugar free” or “no added sugar” may be misleading. Products using these terms may contain sugar alcohols, a derivative of sugar, which yield as many calories as table sugar (4 calories per gram). Even if a food has no added sugar doesn’t mean it wasn’t sweet to begin with.

OK, so you've mastered ignoring the claims made on the packaging. Now what? It’s time to turn your attention to the ingredients list.

Kerry says, "The ingredients list label will help you find the hidden saturated and trans fats, sugars, sodium, artificial flavourings and refined grains. Ingredients are listed in order of most to least amounts. That means the first ingredient will be in the largest quantity. The second is the second most and so on.

"For instance, if a product claims to be a “fruit breakfast bar”, look for fruit to be one of the top two ingredients. If you see “enriched wheat flour” or “sugar” before the fruit, put it back and make a better choice.

In addition to the bad ingredients discussed above, try to avoid foods that contain these “evil-doer” ingredients whenever possible:

• Enriched flour, wheat flour, or unbleached wheat flour: are all code words for refined flour with just a small amount of whole wheat added.

• Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils: code words for trans fats.

• Nitrates: used to preserve meats and have been linked to creating a powerful cancer causing chemical in the body; found especially in luncheon meat and bacon.

• High fructose corn syrup: a fancy phrase for refined sugar. Other forms of sugar to watch out for in the ingredients list include: honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice, malt, dextrose, maltose, frustose and of course, sugar.

• Lard shortening: pure animal fat, enough said

• Artificial food colourings: are chemicals used to add colour to foods.

• Monosodium glutamate (MSG): a form of sodium; other words that mean high sodium include brine, disodium phosphate, garlic salt, onion salt, sodium alginate, sodium benzoate, sodium caseinate, sodium hydroxide, sodium nitrate, sodium pectinate, sodium propionate, sodium sulfite, baking powder, baking soda and soy sauce.

There are so many more ingredients that we could list, but in the interest of saving space, here’s a rule of thumb: if a food item is packed with lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce (they are artificial sounding) and it includes trans fats, you should look for a better food choice. Try to stick with products that are made from whole foods, with little to no preservatives, and with little to no artificial sounding ingredients, and definitely no trans fats.

Happy label reading

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