Food labels, these can sometimes seem like a different language when we try to understand them. We do our best to eat healthily, we try to choose foods that appear to be a better option, but do you get confused when trying to decipher those labels on food products?
I noticed recently while randomly looking at food labels while walking around the supermarket (I know it’s a little sad but I’m a health coach, I have an excuse…. honest), I noticed how the various sources of sweetening ingredients were separated and therefore sitting further down the list of ingredients, rather than just listed as sugar, which would probably have sat at the top of the list. It made me realise how much food labels can be confusing. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of how food labels can be misleading sometimes.
Greatest goes first
When looking at food labels, the ingredient that’s first in the list is the one that the food contains most of by weight. So for something like tomato sauce, you’d expect the first ingredient to be tomatoes, right? This is your first check, does the food you’re buying, mostly contain the food advertised? If a cheese and onion pasty lists the cheese and the onion way way down the list, maybe you’re not getting such a good quality product but rather one that may be filled more with air! I’m sure we’ve all had those pasties and pies where we’ve bitten in and found the air cavity is larger than the caves at Cheddar Gorge.
It’s a myster-E
Together with the normal ingredients are those dreaded E-numbers which can hide what’s added to our food. Trying to limit your intake of artificial sweeteners? Then maybe you need to avoid foods containing E-420, E-950 and E-951, commonly known as Sorbitol, Acesulfame-K and Aspartame. Or how about E-102, E-104, E-122 and E-129? These are ingredients that UK food manufacturers have been advised to eliminate due to links with hyperactivity in children, also known as Tartrazine, Carmoisine, Allura Red and Quinoline Yellow. While we’re talking E-numbers, a particularly juicy one to look for is E-621, or Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). MSG is a flavour enhancer that’s used to make food taste better, but it also has, for some, side effects including headaches, nausea, dizziness, muscle pain and palpitations. It can also contribute to weight gain. While listing ingredients as E numbers is covering the legal requirements of food labelling, they don’t really tell us what those ingredients are unless we have the list of E numbers to hand. Here’s a list of E-numbers and what they are on the UK Food Standards website – Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers
Beware of the Sodium
Some food manufacturers may not list “Salt” on their food labels, they may instead state the amount of Sodium in the food. If you’re trying to minimise the amount of salt you’re having in your diet and look at a label that lists “Sodium”, the salt content is actually two and a half times that amount! So for instance, you see a food with 1g Sodium per ½ portion, that actually means that there’s 5g of actual salt in the whole portion. Now considering that the recommended adult intake of salt per day is 6g, that 2g sodium in a whole portion of the food, using the x2.5 rule, reaches 5g which is almost the whole days’ worth of your salt intake. So keep an eye on how salt is actually being listed.
The whole story, or is it half?
Another trick that many manufactures use on their food labels is to swap around their units of measurement when listing the amounts of carbs, protein, salt etc. One label may say “Per 100g”, others may say “Per ½ portion”, “Per 1/3 portion”. So while those nice, easy to read levels of fat, sugars etc on the front of the food package gives some great information, it may not be the whole story, only a fraction of it.
The old distraction game
Yet another trick that seems to be employed (there are MANY) with the portion type is to put small, thin, black writing against quite a bright and busy background. This means your eyes are drawn only to the information they want you to see and you may not even notice how large or small the portion size is. Looking at a bottle of tomato ketchup for instance, the salt content is already labelled with red, meaning it’s high is salt, but the serving size is tiny compared to the panel and it’s listed as “Amounts per serving (15g)” so you may not realise just how much you’re having.
The more you get used to looking at the food labels, the easier it will become and you’ll start to see the little tricks being used. In time, you’ll be reading them like a pro!