Whenever you go into a supermarket, it can feel like a bit of a mission. Firstly you have to navigate the shop’s layout, then there’s all the confusing pricing and offers and all whilst trying to find food that is not only nutritious but fits your budget.
With more people now opting for pre-packaged foods, understanding food labelling is becoming even more important. Whilst the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) covers many aspects of food and health, there is still no standardised labelling or packaging system for food in the UK, and this can just add to the confusion. Labels can be incredibly misleading because regulations are complex and many manufacturers take certain liberties with health claims. Add into the mix food marketing strategies designed to make you buy food even though it might not be wholly what it claims may make the difficult almost impossible!
However, there are some simple things to look out for that can make it quick and easy to compare and contrast the nutritional content of food, as well as be aware of misleading marketing strategies to ensure that you are making an informed choice about what you are eating.
STEP 1: BE WARY OF MARKETING CLAIMS
Be sceptical of marketing hype – terms like “cholesterol free” “0% fat” and “natural” are all used without regulation. Studies have shown that consumers are more likely to trust brands and buy products with health claims, but the truth is that many of these claims are misleading.
Cholesterol only comes from animal products so if you see this label on something like a package of nuts or oats, it’s pointless because it’s already a given.
New labelling laws have recently been introduced in the wake of terrible tragedies from customers of certain fast food shops dying from allergic reactions to foods not clearly labelled. Logos of gluten and dairy free as now a familiar sight on food packages and allergens in food and food supplements have to be listed in bold font in the ingredients list to clearly indicate their presence.
There are a number of different allergens that have to be highlighted including:
- Peanuts or nuts more generally
- Gluten-containing cereals, such as wheat and oats
- Crustaceans such as shellfish
Whilst labelling for allergens has become an important part of new legislation and food manufacturers responsibility, just because a food carries the “free from” logo denoting no dairy, gluten, eggs or some other allergen, this does not automatically make the food healthy. In fact there are all sorts of additives, fillers and binders, such as xanthan gum, that are used in “Free From” products such as gluten-free bread, as well as higher levels of fats (often as palm oil), sugar and/or salt added for flavouring, so always read the labels.
“Natural” is used to describe a product that is comprised of natural ingredients, i.e. products containing ingredients produced by nature, minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. There is no legal definition or regulation to use this term so food manufacturers and advertisers often interpret it very loosely. Let’s face it – crisps are derived from natural potatoes so can be marketed as a “natural” product even though they are high in fats and salt.
TOP TIP: Do not be swayed by the idea that products labelled “natural” are healthy – always read the ingredients label to be sure what you’re eating.
A ‘100% organic’ label means that synthetic ingredients are disallowed by law, and production processes must meet organic standards. “Organic” means at least 95% is organically produced and “made with organic ingredients” means at least 70% of the ingredients are organic. At least this term is better regulated in the UK but it still doesn’t mean the product is healthy – always read the ingredients list.
0% TRANS FATS Law allows products to label as 0% trans fats but in reality, this means less that 0.5g trans fat per serving, not 0%. What this means is that for a 30g serving of biscuits (e.g. 2 digestives) you could really be ingesting almost 2% trans fat.
Trans fats (labelled as partially hydrogenated fats) go through a chemical process that turns them from liquid to solid. They’re bad news because they can lower your healthy cholesterol and raise LDL cholesterol. Consuming these fats also increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes.
TOP TIP: Avoid processed foods then you avoid trans fats.
STEP 2: BE WARY OF BRANDING
Product branding is big business. After all, manufacturers want you to buy their product over an already crowded food market so what are some of the tricks of the trade?
Colour is one of the most primitive forms of communication and the use of colour in food marketing exploits these emotions on a psychological level. Research by Color Communications Inc found that it takes about 90 seconds for someone to form an opinion of a brand. Within that time, between 62% and 90% of decisions are influenced by colour alone.
Take a look at the fast food industry. Until recently almost every fast food chain used a combination of red and yellow in their branding. Red and yellow are colours usually associated with speed and efficiency. Natural foods will of course via towards the green colour palette though blue is also popular as this denotes stability, trust and is associated with smart and calming emotions.
Couple colour with branding images of healthy people and marketing messages like “100% natural” on the packaging, alongside several different products to choose between all displayed tantalising at eye height or with clever lighting in the supermarkets, you can begin to see why decision fatigue kicks and we just grab the first product that catches our eye without making a healthy informed choice!
TOP TIP: There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a list and shopping online so we are not so fooled by food marketing and branding.
STEP 3: UNDERSTANDING CORE FOOD LABELLING In the UK, it is a requirement for pre-packaged foods to show certain types of information on the label. This might appear in different formats depending on which supermarket or manufacturer you are purchasing the food from but all will declare the following:
- The full ingredient list
- Nutritional content of the food including proportion or fat, carbohydrates, protein and salt
- Allergen information
There are a few other core pieces of information that you’ll also find on pre-packaged foods including its best-before or use-by date, special storage instructions (if needed), instructions on how to cook the food (if instructions are necessary), as well as the country of origin for certain products.
The use-by about is about safety. Foods can be eaten up to the date stamp but after the date has past then bacteria and other toxins may be present at high enough levels to cause harm to health – for this reason, fresh foods such as dairy, meat and eggs have a use-by date which must be adhered to.
Best-before end (BBE) dates re about quality rather than safety and appear on a wide range of foods including frozen fruit and vegetables, dried and tinned foods. It’s safe to eat these foods after the BBE date has past but the flavour and texture might not be as good. However, food waste is a big problem so BBEs should only be used as a guide rather than given to disposing of food that has passed that date.
TOP TIP: Foods past the best before date are still safe to eat. Mix canned foods like beans into soups to save food waste.
STEP 4: CHECK OUT THE INGREDIENT LIST
One of the most useful aspects of food labelling regulations in the UK is that, where a product has two or more ingredients, a list of all of the ingredients used in that product must be displayed on the packaging.
The list of ingredients is as important as the nutrition facts (see Step 5) because the ingredients determine the nutrient density. Processed foods use added fats and sugars, and their quality can’t be determined by how many grammes are listed so if a food is high in fat or sugar stated in nutrition facts box you can use the ingredients listing to see where it comes from, i.e. is it natural in the food (e.g. higher sugar as there are dried fruits in the product) or from added refined sugar or oils? One of the important things to remember as a consumer is that the product ingredients are listed according to their weight, so that the ingredient with the most weight is listed first, and the ingredient with the least weight is listed last. This means that, when you’re trying to figure out how healthy a particular product may be, a good indicator could well be the ingredients list. For example, if sugar (or a sugar derivative
sometimes listed as fruit sugars, fruits juice or any word ending in “–ose” like maltose, fructose or sucrose) comes in the first five ingredients then you can be sure that the food is not a healthy choice without even looking at the nutritional listing! Thankfully we’re not quite at the US stage of adding in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) into everything from tomato ketchup to jam to pasta sauces but this is another form of sugar to avoid.
TOP TIP: Limit foods with sugar appearing in first five ingredients – sugars are everything ending in –ose and may also be listed as fruit juices/sugars/concentrates.
Looking at labels can give a good indication of how processed some foods are. For example, looking at a meat pie with a meat listed far down the ingredients with other foods such as water and flour listed before the meat indicates that the food is highly processed.
You can also compare across ingredients list when choosing between similar products to see if one has a lower content of sugar or higher content of the good quality food you want to eat. This can be an interesting exercise especially at this time of year when comparing and contrasting seasonal products such as mincemeat and Christmas pudding mixtures though of course making these products from scratch ensures a healthy, tasty and nutritious mix of ingredients!
Other ingredients avoid or limit:
- MSG (found in many dressings, sauces, meats, and cheeses)
- Hydrogenated oils
- Added processed sugars
- White refined flours in grain products
- Artificial dyes and additives
- Nitrates and nitrites (typically found in processed meats such as bacon)
STEP 5: LOOK AT THE NUTRITION FACTS
Always look at the panel of nutrition facts and then the list of ingredients paying attention to key numbers. You may see on products the traffic light labelling system. Every supermarket/ manufacturer has a slightly different take on this system and often products that are high in sugar, such as certain types of breakfast cereals, typically don’t use the red, amber, green colours to denote high, medium and low levels of sugar and salt etc. otherwise this would demonstrate how high in sugar these products are – another sneaky food marketing ploy!
However, generally speaking nutritional information on the front of the packaging helpfully indicates how much of the following is present in their product:
- Saturated fat
CHECK OUT THE SERVING SIZE
Serving size listed provides a great reality check when determining your portion. Just try weighing out 30g of breakfast cereal or measure out two tablespoons of peanut butter – this can be quite an eye-opener for many people!
TOP TIP: Use the nutrition box that labels nutrition content per 100g to compare between products, as different products have different serving sizes.
CHECK THE FIBRE CONTENT
Current guidelines suggest 30g fibre daily for adults but realistically many people eat far less. Processed foods are typically very low in fibre so look for foods that contain 5g+ of fibre per serving to ensure a good daily intake.
BEWARE OF SODIUM (SALT) LEVELS
Sodium in the form of salt (listed as sodium chloride or NaCl) is a key ingredient in packaged foods. No more than 6g salt daily is suggested for adults in the UK though this is easily exceeded when consuming processed foods including bread (some brands have up to 1g salt per slice!).
TOP TIP: On food labels, if only the sodium levels are listed then double this number to get the actual salt content – it’s another trick used to make the salt content look less than it actually is.
CHECK THE SUGAR CONTENT
Sugar is listed as “total carbohydrates” on the nutrition box but also look for “total sugars”, as this will tell you the true sugar content. After all, carbohydrates also include sources of fibre so unprocessed foods such as dried or canned lentils, chickpeas and beans will have high carbohydrate content but low total sugars. Sugars may also be labelled as fruit juice or fruit concentrate – this is still refined sugar source so best avoided.
TOP TIP: Foods with more than 5g per 100g of sugar (i.e. 5% total sugar) are classed as high sugar so are best kept to a minimum or even avoided.
Worryingly half of all food bought by families in the UK is now believed to be “ultra-processed”. This food evolution from real food to industrial production is a worrying trend and so it pays more than ever to understand food labelling.
We might not think that this applies to us but it’s easy to get complacent when choosing the foods that you like and believe are healthy but it’s not uncommon for formulas to change or food manufacturing companies to switch to another processing method. Recent examples of this include a 20% increase in the sugar of dairy milk bars between 1992 and 2019. But it’s not just junk food – a brand of coconut milk that used to comprise of just coconut milk, rice milk and water has now added in sugar syrup to its recipe.
TOP TIP: Don’t stop reading food
 https://www.gov.uk/guidance/organic-food-labelling-rules Iqbal (2014) Trans fatty acids – A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Park J Med Sci 30:194-197  https://99designs.co.uk/blog/tips/branding-colors/  https://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2015/aug/24/how-pick-colour-scheme-for-brand  https://www.nutrition.org.uk/nutritionscience/nutrients-food-and-ingredients/dietary-fibre.html  https://www.food.gov.uk/business-guidance/salt
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