Confused about food labels? Four things best ignored on packaging.

When we walk into a supermarket, we are exposed to a huge amount of marketing. Everything from shelf placement to the colours and the words on food labels are designed to convince us to make a purchase, whether that is in our best interests or not.

While it is essential that we choose mostly real, whole foods – that is, foods that typically don’t come in packages – I understand that it can be convenient and, at times, more realistic for us to buy some packaged or processed foods. But with the enormous amount of food products available these days, it can be difficult to know which ones to choose.

Not all processed foods are created equal. While there are, unfortunately, many processed foods that are virtually devoid of nutrients and therefore don’t serve our health in any way, there are some better options that are based on nourishing, whole food ingredients.

Buying hummus is a good example. Some hummus brands may contain additives, preservatives or poor-quality ingredients that you might not feel comfortable consuming. Yet there will be other brands that just contain the whole food ingredients you would use if you were to make it yourself, so these would be a great choice if you wanted to buy it ready-made.

Although some of the information on food labels can be very helpful, such as the ingredients list and the Nutrition Information Panel, other information on the packaging – typically on the front of the product (prime real estate!) – can be confusing or even potentially misleading.

Here are some examples of things to ignore on food labels:

97 PERCENT FAT FREE (OR 98 PERCENT OR 99 PERCENT…)

If you lived through the low-fat era, you may still be (consciously or unconsciously) gravitating towards products marketed as “low-fat”. Having a low fat content does not make a food nutritious – this claim on food labels is often added to products that contain a bucketload of added sugar, such as low-fat sweetened yoghurts and lollies. A low-fat diet isn’t ideal for most people – the body needs nourishing fats from whole food sources.

NO ADDED CANE SUGAR

Reducing added sugars from the way we eat is becoming more popular, which is great. But some food products have “no added cane sugar” written on the front of the packet. The key word in that sentence is “cane”. Cane sugar is just one of myriad different added sugars, so this doesn’t necessarily mean the product is sugar-free. It is just cane sugar-free. Always check the ingredients list and/or the Nutrition Information Panel on food labels for more detailed information.

LOW GI

The GI (glycaemic index) of a food is a measure of the speed at which it increases blood glucose levels. This relates specifically to how quickly the carbohydrate in the food is digested and absorbed in the body, however it doesn’t take into account the total amount of carbohydrate that is eaten, which is what has the biggest impact on blood glucose levels. Having a low GI score doesn’t guarantee it is a nutritious choice – it is possible for a food that is high in sugar to have a low GI if it is also high in fat, as dietary fat slows down how quickly foods are digested.

NATURAL INGREDIENTS

While it sounds promising, “natural ingredients” is quite a vague claim and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is nutritionally balanced. Snack bars containing mostly dried fruits tend to contain natural ingredients, but they can still be a highly concentrated form of sugar. This claim is quite common on food labels so it’s good to be discerning about the choices you make. It would be better, for example, to choose a piece of fresh fruit over a fruit bar.

To best support your health, choose mostly real, whole foods – the ones that don’t need a label to tell us they’re a nutritious choice. And if you buy some processed foods, do your best to disregard the marketing and check the ingredients list instead.

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