Nutrition labels contain a myriad of information designed to help us make choices, but can often overwhelm and confuse us. Even in a JERF template, there will still be products you purchase and when reading nutrition labels it is important to be able to look deeper than the claims made on the packet and understand both the nutrition information panel and list of ingredients that you are purchasing, so that you are not self-sabotaging your own health.
The Nutrition Information Panel (NIP)
The NIP breaks down the nutrients found in the product into categories including energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, fibre and sodium. The panel should also contain information relating to both per serve and per 100g. When comparing similar products, use the ‘per 100g’ column so that you are comparing equivalent volumes. Pay particular attention to the sugar column and look for less than 8% sugar or less than 8g of sugar per 100g. Remember that 4g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon.
When looking at food labels, bear in mind that ingredients are listed in order of descending quantity. If the list of ingredients on the label contains more than five ingredients we do suggest that it’s best to find an alternative. There are exceptions to this rule (such as a bar made from almonds, coconut flakes, chia seeds, Brazil nuts, Goji berries and honey), but in general, more than five ingredients starts to indicate a significantly higher degree of human interference, and a “food-like product” rather than real food.
While it is useful to know the ingredients in descending order, it is unfortunate for the unsuspecting consumer that there are a number of different names to many ingredients out there, particularly sugar. Sugar alone can be listed as sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, maltose, dextrose, apple juice concentrate, golden syrup and so the list goes on. Be mindful of this form of “green washing” and always check the NIP for the % sugar.
Additional considerations to avoid are:
- Ingredients you can’t pronounce, except quinoa 😉
- Numbers such as the 100 range (artifical colouring), 200 range (preservatives) and 400 range (artificial sweeteners);
- Letters including E621-625 (glutamates) used to enhance flavours and a hidden name for monosodium glutamate i.e. MSG.
- Vegetable and seed oils including canola oil, sunflower oil and soybean oil. They’re highly inflammatory and a contributing factor to disease. More on why here.
- The Health Star Rating
An Australian Government initiative developed by food and beverage industry bodies, public health and consumer experts. The Health Star Rating system uses stars as a quick and easy way for the consumer to compare the nutritional profile of foods. The system claims that the more stars, the healthier the product but has been the subject of ongoing debate with many vegetables failing to meet the criteria for the five-star rating. Additionally “food-like products” such as Milo have been awarded 4.5/5 stars, despite containing a whopping 46% sugar! Kellogg’s All Bran scores 5/5 stars with an ingredient list of: wheat bran (85%), sugar, barley malt extract, salt, vitamins (riboflavin, folate, thiamin). Vested interest anyone? The Health Star Rating at best provides a quick comparison between like for like products and should be taken with a grain of sea salt, pun intended. Rather than rely on the number of stars, look for food which is nutrient dense and as close to whole food as possible.
- Health Benefits
Many foods claim to reduce your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, by lowering your cholesterol. Known as one of the biggest myths of the last five decades, the saturated fat-heart health myth is still being used by Big Food. I repeat: we do not need to artificially lower a vital substance that virtually every cell in your body naturally produces and requires to sustain optimal function. Please throw your margarine in the bin!
- Low Fat
We are thankfully coming out of the era where low fat products were king, however it remains a key marketing ploy by Big Food. Food which are low fat are often flavourless and in order to make them palatable for consumers, they become high in sugar and/or refined salt. Natural foods that have been made low fat have a high degree of human interference and do not belong in our real food category. As a key satiety macronutrient and the foundation of healthy hormones, good fats such as avocado, nuts, seeds, butter, olive oil and coconut oil are an essential addition to your meals.
As we aways say, the biggest change you can make to improve your health is to significantly reduce your packaged food consumption. We do understand however, that in today’s busy world that you are not always able to grow your own produce or make all meals from scratch. Ensuring we understand the labels of what we are purchasing helps us as a consumer to make the best choice possible for our health and enables us to avoid unnecessary sugar, refined oils and other additives.
Need help with your own real food journey? Why not ask us how The Kitchen Whizz can help you?