Often in the supermarket you can hear people say things like: “the pack says it has Omega-3s, wholegrains, and added vitamins – not sure what that means but it looks healthy!”
Hold up now!
Before you go assuming that the marketing department would never try and blindfold you, and that putting that ‘healthy’ product into your shopping trolley is a good idea, let’s dig a little deeper shall we?
As dietitians, we are forever ranting on about how important it is for everyone to read the labels of the products you want to eat. What we are talking about here, isn’t seeing the word ‘wholegrain’, ‘natural’ or ‘fat-free’ and thinking the job is done. No, that’s not looking at the nutrition label. That’s simply looking at the packet. Front and centre, where your eyes just so happen to fall on the bright fun coloured words that promise the product is awesome for you. No, dietitians want you to bypass all that marketing hoo-ha, and actually pay attention to the ingredients list and nutrition info. The nutrition panel is what holds (most of) the secrets of the product. This is your consumer weapon against misleading advertising and clever marketing tactics that lure you in.
Your ultimate weapon – the nutrition panel
Now, as much as I’d love to trust the packaging, and occasionally I get sucked in too (usually because the pack is pretty), it’s important to really understand how to make sense of the panel, or the ‘NIP’.
The main things to note are:
- The ingredients list is arranged in the order of highest to least amount. Meaning the first item on the list is the main ingredient, the second is the second, third the third….you get my drift. If a list goes on and on like a novel (more than 8 ingredients that aren’t fruit, vegetable or grain/seed), leave it on the shelf. Who needs all of that in a mere few mouthfuls? The exception here are wholefood snacks and treats.
- When comparing products, make sure you use the 100g column, as the ‘per serve’ column will send you astray. Even if it’s a similar product, the food manufacturer can make their serve size smaller or greater than other products to seem more appealing. Less fat per serve? Brilliant, no?! Compare the 100g columns, and you’ll sometimes find it’s actually got more fat than the one that appeared higher in fat per serve. We’ve gotta keep it a level playing field! Use the 100g column.
- Sugar isn’t just sugar. Fat isn’t just fat. Ever thought a product was awesome cause someone told you to avoid an item that had sugar, fat or salt as the main 3 ingredients? While they were right, what they may have skipped is that these 3 common ingredients have an abundance of doppelgängers given fancy names. Sugar = brown sugar, honey, fructose, dextrose, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, rice syrup, maple syrup, golden syrup, inverted sugar syrup etc etc. Fat = oil, butter, cream, hydrolysed vegetable fat, palm oil, shortening, milk solids, copha, tallow, lard etc. Fat, sugar or salt not in the first 3 ingredients? Awesome! But that still doesn’t mean it’s not 50% sugar once you add all the sugar contents below that top 3 line.
- This leads me to my next point. Once you’ve checked out the ingredients list. Head back to the nutrition info table. Once you’re happy with the ingredients list of your product, check these three things.
- Fibre, glorious fibre. This baby will make you feel fuller for longer, help control your blood sugar, manage your cholesterol, reduce your risk of chronic diseases and of course, keep you regular. This one is simple. The more the better. There’s no upper limit set, meaning so far we haven’t really seen any concrete negative side effects from high doses if you get it from a variety of sources. Plus considering most of us aren’t even meeting the recommended 25-30g a day, go ahead, fibre up!
4g is 1 teaspoon of sugar. Per serve, how many teaspoons of sugar does that product have? I’m talking about processed packaged foods here, not a bottle of honey, fresh fruit, dried fruit or a bag of sugar type thing. If it’s got more than 2-3 teaspoon per serve, it’s a treat only. If it’s got more than 3, put it back. Would you ever put more than 3 teaspoons of sugar into your tea or coffee? (If yes, you should probably contact me to sort that out). If no, why eat that much in a food? Limit your intake of added sugars to 6-8 teaspoons (24-32g) a day. Naturally occurring sugars and artificial sweeteners are another story.
5g is 1 teaspoon of fat. Per serve, how many teaspoons of fat does that product have? 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, protein and carbs have 7. Meaning the more fat a food has, the quicker it’s calories pile up. Lucky for us, fats are quite satiating so having them in our diet will help us maintain or lose weight (threw you a little curve ball there didn’t I?!), but only if we keep portions in check. The quickest solution? Skip the deep fried foods, packets of chips and junk food as you just don’t need them. They’re not giving you anything good, and potentially doing you some harm (clogged arteries anyone?). Get your fats from unsalted nuts, pure oils, fish, and avocado. These babies are full of anti-ageing, nourishing goodness.
400mg of sodium, is the equivalent of a good pinch of salt (1 gram). Per serve, how many grams of salt does that product have? Aim for less than 400mg/serve.
Bottom line: check your portions, read your NIPs and eat loads of whole foods.