Ideally there shouldn’t be any labels on your food, as obviously we are perfect human beings eating natural grass-fed protein sources as well as non-processed grains and fresh fruit and veg. Yet unfortunately this doesn’t happen, and realistically it’s difficult to find an item on the shelf that doesn’t have some weird food label.
If finding a decent trolley along with navigating through what seems to be a never-ending maze isn’t hard enough, then the last thing you want to be doing is reading through what seems to be a different language on the side of a box – can I add that it’s always in ant-sized writing, which makes me think I need a trip to Specsavers?
So here are a few tips to help keep your sanity intact:
- LABELS: Nutrition labelling is not compulsory until the end of summer 2016, so don’t start questioning the poor shelf-stacker at your local Tesco's as to why your product doesn’t have a label, as frankly they won’t have a clue and won’t care. If you are really keen to know what is inside, then look up the brand's website, or email customer service (adding please at the end might help with a swift reply). Front of pack labelling is also voluntary and is under much less regulation than nutrition labels on the back, yet if it is displayed, it should be exactly the same on every product due to government guidelines.
- SERVING SIZE: Some products have a serving size, this is the recommended amount that the manufacturers think you should be eating and which the rest of the nutrition information is based on according to that portion amount. These amounts are usually quite small, I find that I usually eat way over that amount. Breakfast cereals are a good one to watch out for, 40 grams is usually listed as the serving size, which is equivalent to ¾ of a cup, so unless you are still 10 years old, let's be honest you are not eating that amount. Portion size and exact amounts of carbs/fats, etc, may be crucial for all you up-and-coming Arnold Schwarzenegger's out there, so some maths will be required.
- CALORIES: Yes, the tiny insects in our closets which sew our clothes together… well they do in my house anyway! We can’t help it but we nearly always judge a food by its calorie count. Yet try not to look at these, as they are no indicator of nutrition. For example, 200 calories from a dairy milk bar (I promise you even the ones with popping candy in aren’t actually that magical) is not going to affect your body in the same way as 200 calories from spinach. Especially if your main goal is to become healthier overall, calorie counting is a waste of time as calories affect the body completely differently depending on where they come from.
- We are pretty good over here in the UK as there is a clear list of fat, carbohydrates, sugars, salts all listed on the grid. Although what I find helpful to know is what is high and what isn’t, so here’s a short list, which you can snap onto your phone:
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
- INGREDIENTS LIST: This is the most informative and most useful thing I find when I get hold of my perfectly packaged food. The list is in order of weight, so basically the first item on the list is what it contains the MOST of, and the last item is the ingredient it contains the LEAST of.
For example, here’s a “SUPER HIGH PACKED PROTEIN” yoghurt label, that makes me chuckle – really, it’s laughable. The best bits include:
“LESS THAN 1% MILK PROTEIN, AGAR AGAR (basically double sugar), and CONTAINS LESS THAN 1% OF OAT MEAL, CARAMEL, SALT”
- FAT FREE/SUGAR FREE health claims basically translate into DO NOT EAT ME. Think Alice in Wonderland and what happened there… sugar-free usually means let me botox up an ingredient with some more chemicals so it lasts a bit longer and has the same appearance.
I hope this has given you a quick whistle stop tour of the world of labelling and how sneaky it can be. This has just about skimmed the surface, yet if you are interested there are many resources online, so check out the list below (the 57 names of sugar is definitely a good one):
BASICS ON FOOD LABELLING
57 NAMES OF SUGAR THAT APPEAR ON FOOD LABELS
MISLEADING HEALTH TRICKS
SNEAKY FOOD LABELLING TRICKS