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Navigating the aisles: a guide to deciphering food labels

Venturing into a supermarket is more than a shopping trip; it’s an encounter with a carefully engineered battlefield of marketing tactics. From the strategic placement of products to the colour schemes and wording on packaging, every detail is designed to lure us into making purchases, often without regard for our health.

The unfortunate truth is that many processed foods offer little nutritional value and may even contain harmful ingredients like preservatives, additives and excess sugars. The misconception that packaged goods are inherently safe is misleading, especially considering that many additives in these foods are not extensively tested. Their long-term effects, particularly in combination with other substances, are not fully understood.

To safeguard our health, we need to be savvy about what we choose to purchase. And learning how to read food labels is a great asset. Here’s a helpful guide to deciphering what’s important and what’s best ignored on food packaging.

Turn the product around

When choosing products, it’s wise to ignore the front-of-package claims and examine the back for the ingredients and nutrition facts. The grocery store is a maze of confusing jargon and enticing buzzwords like “natural,” “free-range,” and “non-GMO”. Front labels are designed to sell, not to inform. These labels, while appealing, often do not offer the clarity needed for informed decisions.

For instance, “fat-free” products may still be high in sugar, and items “made with real fruit” might contain only minimal fruit concentrate. Phrases like “no added sugar” might not indicate a low sugar content, as products can be high in natural sugars or contain alternative sweeteners that pose their own health risks. Claims that a product contains specific vitamins or minerals usually mean these nutrients were added back after processing, stripping away the food’s real nutritional value.

Start with the ingredients list

Scrutinising the ingredients list on any packaged or canned food before buying is crucial to piercing through marketing claims to uncover the real nutritional value, or lack thereof, hidden in our food choices. True insights come from what manufacturers have added to their products and where items are listed from most to least prevalent. If the list begins with any form of sugar or filler ingredients (think soy lecithin, any kind of vegetable oil or any words that you can’t identify as originating from real food), this is a product best avoided. In fact, a product that lists any ingredient you can’t identify as originating from whole, real food, it’s probably best to leave it on the shelf.

Words ending in ‘-ose’ are typically sugars, while ‘hydrogenated oils’ and ‘fats’ speak for themselves. Industrialised seed oils – which may be listed as ‘vegetable oil’ – are widespread through packaged foods and, as they contain pro-inflammatory drivers, they are best minimised or avoided where possible. Keep an eye out for the length of the ingredients list too – generally speaking, shorter lists are an indicator of less processing. Another thing to note is that manufacturers may also include two or more different types of sugars – such as glucose, fructose or corn syrup – so that they sit further down the list to trick the consumer into thinking there’s not as much sugar in the product.

Review the nutritional panel

The nutrition panel, while secondary to the ingredients list, is also valuable for understanding what’s inside the package. For example, examining the sugar content can help identify lower-sugar options, especially in products like kombucha, where sugar is needed for fermentation but largely consumed during the process. If you’re looking at the sugars amount in the nutritional information panel on other products, also be aware that this doesn’t differentiate between intrinsic sugars (sugar that occurs naturally in a food, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy milk) and added sugars. This is another reason why it’s a good idea to read the ingredients list, so you know what the product is really made up of. It’s important too to compare items using standard measures like per 100mL or per 100g to get an accurate comparison. “Serving sizes” can vary widely between brands and aren’t always measured in the amounts we might typically eat them.

Ultimately, the most straightforward strategy for navigating food label confusion is to prioritise whole, real foods that are minimally processed. Eating food in its natural state ensures you’re nourishing your body without the complications of deciphering labels. However, recognising the role of convenience and the occasional necessity of processed foods in our lives, becoming an informed consumer can empower you to make more nutritious choices amidst the marketing noise. Eat food, not junk, as often as you can.


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