Food labels help you make healthier food choices. Thankfully, laws state that packaged and manufactured food must show ingredients and nutrition information panels so you can compare different foods.
But you also need to know some of the tricks and traps that food manufacturers may use to confuse you.
Don’t let claims about a product being healthier or better for you or lower in salt or sugar or whatever fool you. Many descriptions on food packaging are misleading so you should always check the ingredient list and nutrition panel to verify any claims.
We wish there was more greater transparency and honesty in food labelling, however it seems some food companies are more interested in the health of their bottom line than the health of the people who buy their products.
Some things to watch out for:
- Foods that claim to be “Lite” or “Light” may not be low in fat or kilojoules, but rather light in colour, taste, texture or appearance. Pretty sneaky, uh?
- Low fat or reduced fat? Very low-fat foods must contain less than 0.15 per cent fat. Low-fat solid foods must contain less than 3 grams of fat per 100 gram serve; low-fat liquid foods must contain less than 1.5 grams of fat per 100 mL. And remember, if a food claims to be 90 per cent fat-free, that food is actually 10 per cent fat.
- Extra vitamins and minerals? Well, check the percentage of recommended daily intake is stated to see how much is really in there. Also, just because a package says “Added niacin or vitamin C’ doesn’t mean the product is a healthy choice – most breakfast cereals make these claims but are loaded with sugar and sodium.
All ingredients in a food product must be, by law, listed on the label in descending order of weight. Even here, however, things are not always what they seem. Not all ingredients must be listed by their percentage weight. The amount of the key ingredient — the ingredient usually mentioned in the name of the product (e.g. apricots in an apricot muesli bar) — must be listed with a percentage indicating how much of the product consists of that ingredient. In some products, such as plain bread, there are no key ingredients.
We believe there needs to be more truth in labelling, including how ingredients are named and what percentage is in each product. We think food manufacturers should come clean and show the percentage by weight of all ingredients, not just the key one.
Deciphering ingredients can also be tricky. For example, a product may be made mostly of sugar but a food manufacturer may use different terminology for ‘sugar’ so that sugar doesn’t appear as the first ingredient.
Some other ‘code’ words for sugar include: brown-rice syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrin, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, malt syrup, maltose, molasses, raw sugar, rice syrup, sorbitol, sucrose and xylose.
Nutrition information panel
The Nutrition Information Panel on a food label offers the simplest and easiest way to choose foods with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre.
A good resource can be found on the Australian Government’s Eat for Health website.