It’s not just the nutrition label you need to be aware of, text and pictures can be deliberately misleading. Before we turn to the back of the pack for the nutritional information let’s take a closer look at what faces you front and centre on the supermarket shelf. Not everything is what it seems, sophisticated marketing and package design are used to draw you in so that the product is in the basket before you even think to look at the nutritional data.
Three packaging practices that have been highlighted are:-
- labelling products as ‘traditional’ or ‘artisanal’;
- displaying fruit pictures on packaging for products that have little or no actual fruit content;
- labelling as ‘whole grain’ products with barely any fibre.
E.g. the BEUC report mentions that while this product has many fruits on the packaging, they are only 2.5% of all ingredients – No lies but the impression may well bet that there is a lot more fruit inside than depicted on the package!?
Terms such as no-fat or no-sugar, low-fat or reduced-salt on food packaging may give consumers a sense of confidence before they purchase, but these claims rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “In fact, in some cases, products that tend to be high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims.”
For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains four-and-a-half grams of fat compared to seven grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both still contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which could provide the appearance that the low-fat version is “healthy.” Chocolate low-fat milk is another example. It has the lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other beverages.
So it would be wise to compare the nutrition labels rather than relying on visual clues designed to make us belive the contents are ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’! when shopping for packaged and canned foods. Even if it’s advertised as a healthy choice, it could be loaded with added fat, sodium and sugar that you won’t find unless you read the label carefully.
Nutrition labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging. This type of label includes information on energy (kJ/kcal), fat, saturates (saturated fat), carbohydrate, sugars, protein and salt. It may also provide additional information on certain nutrients, such as fibre.
Different countries have different food labelling regulations and how these are presented on packaging. e.g. in the US it might look like this, in my mind pretty confusing. To get a better idea one might need a calculator and follow the 5/20 rule explained in this helpful video. Essentially it suggests that a 20% or more daily value (DV) of any nutrient is a high amount, while 5% or less is low. If you’re looking for low sodium, for example, make sure the daily value is 5% or lower. If you want to boost your potassium, look for at least a 20% daily value. A common pitfall is to miss the portion size – in this example there a 3 servings and so if you were to eat the whole pack you would have three times the value (right hand column) But here there is no container column so one would need to multiply oneself by eight!
In the UK there are more colourful depictions with a ‘traffic light’ representation of HIGH, MEDIUM and LOW levels.
Look out for potentially misleading claims. My favourite is ‘Cholesterol Free’ on products that would never have cholesterol being vegetable and not animal derived products! (Cholesterol is only found in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs etc.)
Below is from BUPA in the UK
British United Provident Association Limited, is an international health insurance and healthcare group with over 38 million customers worldwide.
Bupa’s origins and global headquarters are in the United Kingdom.
Fats are an essential part of your diet. But eating too much fat or too much of certain types of fat can be unhealthy.
If a product is described as fat free, it has to contain no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g or 100ml of the product.
Low-fat, light or lite claims
A solid food claiming to be low fat, light or lite can’t contain more than 3g of fat per 100g. A liquid food making this claim can’t contain more than 1.5g of fat per 100ml.
Saturated fats are considered to be less healthy than unsaturated fats. If you eat too much saturated fat, this may increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood. High cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease. Eating too many trans fats may also increase your risk of heart disease.
If a product claims to contain reduced saturated fat, this gives you an idea about how much saturated fat and trans fats it contains. To be described as having reduced saturated fat, a product must contain at least 30 per cent less than the full-fat version. And the amount of trans fats in the product must be equal to or less than the trans fats in the full-fat version.
Having some sugar in your diet, especially from natural sources such as fruit and vegetables, is generally good for you. But consuming high-sugar processed foods or drinks regularly can mean you put weight on and can also be bad for your teeth. Some research suggests that having too much sugar in the form of sugary drinks is associated with increasing the risk of having type 2 diabetes.
Low-sugar foods can’t contain more than 5g of sugars per 100g (if solid) or 2.5g of sugars per 100ml (if liquid).
No added sugar claims
A product claiming it has no added sugar mustn’t contain any sugar used as a sweetener. If sugars naturally occur in the food, the label should also say ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’.
Different words for sugar
- syrups (such as treacle, corn and maple syrups)
- fruit juice concentrates
It can sometimes be tricky to find sugar on food labels, especially if the manufacturer uses scientific names for the various types of sugar instead.
Some salt is good for you, but too much salt may increase your blood pressure and cause other health problems. Many people have too much salt in their diet, so cutting down and avoiding added salt can be good for your health. There are lots of other ways to add flavour to your food.
A food claiming to be low in salt mustn’t contain more than 0.12g of sodium per 100g or 100ml of product. This is the same as 0.3g of salt per 100g or 100ml of product. Very low salt products can’t contain more than 0.04g of sodium (0.1g salt) per 100g or 100ml of product.
Fibre is good for your digestive system and your general health. Adults should aim to eat 30g of fibre a day as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
If a food claims to be high in fibre, it must contain at least 6g of fibre per 100g of food. Or, it has to contain at least 3g of fibre for every 100 calories it contains.
Food manufacturers are legally obliged to show clearly if a food contains any of the 14 main ingredients that can cause an allergy or intolerance. They should show this on the label by highlighting the food in the ingredients list – in bold, italics, capital letters, underlining or another colour. This means that the allergenic ingredients are easy to see.
The 14 main ingredients that could cause an allergy or intolerance are:
- tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, cashews and walnuts)
- crustaceans (such as prawns, crab and lobster)
- molluscs (such as squid, mussels and snails)
- milk (including lactose)
- sesame seeds
- soya beans
- cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, rye, barley and oats)
- celery and celeriac
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites if they are over 10mg per kg or litre of the product
Nutrition and health claims
Manufacturers have to follow certain rules if they want to make any nutrition or health claims for their product. They can’t say or suggest that any product can treat, prevent or cure any health problem. They can only make nutrition and health claims if these are backed by approved medical research and fit in with specific guidelines.
- A nutrition claim includes that a product is ‘low fat’ or ‘low in salt’.
- A health claim includes saying that ‘calcium can keep your bones healthy’.
There are different rules for food supplements, fortified foods (containing extra vitamins and minerals) and foods for a specific use (such as baby milks).