The Language of Food Labels

The Language of Food Labels
The Language of Food Labels

Post by Guest Blogger Alex Sherman

Imagine you are at the supermarket, wandering the aisles, when you come across a brand new type of breakfast cereal. Bright colours scream from the front of the packet; it boasts it is “All Natural!” “Healthy” and “Full of Vitamins and Minerals!”.

Post by Guest Blogger Alex Sherman

Imagine you are at the supermarket, wandering the aisles, when you come across a brand new type of breakfast cereal. Bright colours scream from the front of the packet; it boasts it is “All Natural!” “Healthy” and “Full of Vitamins and Minerals!”.

Feeling a bit suspicious? Sometimes you should be. In Australia, there are strict food standards regarding dietary intake, allergen information and food storage conditions. However; calling something “all natural” can be completely true, since we hardly ever consume anything synthetic. Palm oil and high sugar products can still be “all natural”, but can be detrimental to weight loss if consumed every day.

It’s not as simple as bright colours and attractive packaging. In one study, it was found that nearly half of all adult shoppers said that a food carrying a “97 percent fat free” claim on the package was “definitely a healthy food.” Another study used functional imaging techniques to compare participants viewing two versions of one product – one using an organic food symbol, and one without. When each consumer saw the “organic” or “healthy” labelled product, there was significant neural activity in the part of the brain shown to be involved in pleasant taste rewards. Packaging can play a huge role in how we observe and select our products, without us even knowing it!

Every packaged food in Australia must have nutrition information, which is something we all need to start reading to ensure we are consuming the right food for us. The Australian New Zealand Food Standards Code states that it must include all ingredients in descending order by weight, the proportions of carbohydrate, protein, fats, sodium, sugars, and overall kilojoules (the amount of energy it contains). It is then divided into daily serving and per 100g. For example, if a muesli bar begins its ingredient list as “oats (40%), glucose (another word for sugar), chocolate chips (10%)…” you might have picked an unhealthy snack!

Percentage Dietary Intake (%DI) is something else to be wary of. If a product has 70% of your recommended dietary carbohydrate intake for the day, you may need to think about what else you’re eating so as to keep your intake in check. Losing weight means that you must expend more energy than you are consuming. To do so, total kilojoules in food must be less than your daily activity. Of course, this is only a simple way of putting it. The body is highly complex, and every person has their own unique metabolic rate and absorption of different nutrients. This is why consulting with your dietitian is crucial for healthy, sustainable weight loss for YOUR body.

What to keep your eye out for:

  • Low fat: To be low fat, the product must have less than 3g of fat per 100g. However, when a product drops it fat content, occasionally the sugar and/or salt content will skyrocket. Double check that these levels are still relatively normal. High sugar can actually be worse for your blood glucose levels and overall weight loss goals.
  • “No added sugar”: Food packaging can claim that they have “no added sugar”, meaning they did not add anything to the natural product. However, naturally occurring sugars such as honey and maltose still contribute to your sugar intake. This is why reading the back nutrition panel is very important. Look out for alternative words such as dextrose, fructose, maltose, malt syrup, rice syrup, sucrose and honey – these all still mean sugar!
  • Light/lite foods: an advertising sneak is to call something “light” on the front of the packet. Light can mean anything from light in weight or light in colour. Compare the product to another well known equivalent to make sure there is actually a significant difference in nutrition.
  • Don’t forget about drinks! It isn’t just foods you should check fat, sugar and sodium levels. Many fruit juices are full of even more added sugar – even though fruit naturally has enough.

 

Handy tips:

  • Whenever you get any packaged food you love to snack on, or aren’t sure of the serving size, divide up the packet before you even begin to eat it. For example, a serve of almonds is approximately 30g per day. Weigh up and divide your portions into separate containers. That way, you can avoid overeating, since you’ve already measured it out!
  • Aim to have a plate full of produce, such as vegetables and simple, lean meats. With no hidden nasty ingredients, you know you’re getting nutrients without having to translate any confusing food labels.
  • When comparing foods, always use the “per 100g” column. Per serving size can be a little ambiguous, as some companies decrease their serving size to make it look like they have less fats, sugars and salt in their foods. You may not eat 100g, but at least it is consistent across all the brands you are looking at.

 

References:

  • Australian New Zealand Food Standard Code http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/Pages/default.aspx
  • Eat for Health: https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/eating-well/how-understand-food-labels
  • Gorton D., Mhurchu C.N., Bramley D., & Dixon R. 2010. Interpretation of two nutrition content claims: A New Zealand survey. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 34:57-62.
  • Healthy Weight Week: http://healthyweightweek.com.au/understanding-food-labels/
  • Linder N.S., Uhl G., Fliessbach K., Trautner P., Elger C.E., &Weber B. 2010. Organic labeling influences food valuation and choice. Neuroimage 53:215-220.
  • Wartella E.A., Lichtenstein A.H., Yaktine A., & Nathan R. 2012. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Promoting Healthier Choices, Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols (Phase II) Food and Nutrition Board. Institute of Medicine: The National Academies Press, Washington D.C.
  • Australian Medical Association
  • Royal Australian College of Surgeons
  • University of Oxford
  • Alpha Omega Alpha