How to read food labels at the supermarket
Have you ever picked up a product and turned it round to scan the ingredients only to find yourself confused by all the information and convoluted figures? When did it get so busy on our packets and what does it all mean? Here’s some guidelines on how to read food labels at the supermarket for empowering you and your family to make better choices.
Breaking the code
Food Standard regulations in Australia require a label on all food products listing ingredients as well as a nutrition breakdown with stated levels for macro nutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate) and certain others like sodium. Marketing is responsible for the rest of the maze of figures and claims all over the packets.
So, how does one work it all out and break the code on label reading? Here’s a few guidelines for you.
Source of the product
Check out where the product is from. It is not enough to believe the front of the pack that claims it is Australian made, read the small print on the back, companies are now required to declare where the ingredients are sourced. The company may well be Australian but the product could be from anywhere in the world and this is required to be declared. I choose not to buy foods sourced from china due to the lack of quality food regulations and organic processes, leading to heavy pollution in Chinese soils.
Ingredients of what you are actually buying
On the ingredient label, it is required that the list of ingredients starts with the highest level of ingredient to the lowest. Food regulations do not insist on water being declared. Many products may contain a high level of water instead of ingredient but you will not know this.
It is always worth checking the ingredient list. As an example, you may be surprised to learn that rice milk contains only an average 15% of rice in the product, water will bulk out this product. Perhaps it would be more correct to call the product rice flavoured water!
Preservatives and chemicals
Many preservatives and chemicals are listed as a bunch of incomprehensible numbers. If you are avoiding certain chemicals and I suggest you do, then arm yourself with a small booklet of preservatives and chemicals identified, there is one called The Chemical Maze by Bill Statham, which helps explain them all or download a guide from google, easy to get hold of and makes identifying some of the more damaging chemicals easier. There is also an app available.
If you are comparing different products for their contents of sodium or some other nutrient then always compare the 100g column never the serving size. Each packet can have a different serving size which will quickly become confusing. Using 100g as a guide will allow you to work out the % of each nutrient in the product. So 8g/100g of carbohydrate in a product means there is a low level of just 8% whilst as a serving size it could look deceptively high. Don’t forget serving sizes are normally quite small. Who eats 30g of a muesli or granola? No one I know! If you are not convinced, measure some out, it is a very small quantity and this is often the biggest deception in labelling, it is all too easy to serve out way more than the suggested serving size.
Get in the drivers’ seat of your own health and wellness journey
Avoid the trap of believing the many and varied claims companies make. My favourites include “cholesterol free peanut butter” even cholesterol free avocados!! It is frustrating but it really is our own responsibility to understand exactly what we are buying when we purchase processed foods.
Percentages of nutrients
Another bug bear of mine with food companies is when they claim the % of a certain vitamin or nutrient. For example, a company may claim certain boxed cereals contain up to 80% of a particular B vitamin. What they fail to disclose is how much of that vitamin is actually necessary for optimal health. We only understand how much of a vitamin we need in order to prevent sickness and ill health. There have never been any studies undertaken to explore exactly how much of each vitamin/mineral we require to thrive. I ignore these claims, I prefer to eat my vitamins and minerals in a whole food form.
Remember good health comes from a whole food diet choosing primarily plant based foods which are as close to their natural form as possible. Apples and avocados should not come with a bar code.
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