Dave Shaw

Performance nutritionist, clinical dietitian and health expert, Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Don't be fooled by food labels

3 comments
Food labels can be confusing when trying to shop healthy. Photo / Thinkstock
Food labels can be confusing when trying to shop healthy. Photo / Thinkstock

If you care about what you eat, then don't worry too much about reading food labels - they're not as helpful as you may think.

Government legislation requires food manufacturers share their secret ingredients, a request consumers battled for years to achieve. But our obsession to know what's in the food we eat has turned into a playground for the industry. They have had some fun deceiving the novice shopper by tampering with the claims, names and numbers on the label and nutrition information panel - or NIP to us nutrition nerds.

I hear it all the time - "the labels are too small to read," "they're confusing" - and this is no accident. Food manufacturers don't want you questioning what's in their products.

We have been outsmarted by an industry that values business over health. The noble NIP is no longer a sanctuary for simple and clear information. It now takes time to decode, which is why a simpler method of identifying healthy foods is needed - and long overdue.

But for the educated label reader, comparing foods based on their nutritional value can be as natural as tying a pair of shoelaces. It's also an essential skill if you have an intolerance or allergy to a food.

Food Labels 101:

No label = the best

Wholefoods are key to a healthy diet and they aren't slapped with any nutrition info. Fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, nuts and seeds are undeniably the best foods for you. Don't be afraid of these guys.

Beware of 'fat free' labels. Photo / Thinkstock
Beware of 'fat free' labels. Photo / Thinkstock

Be cautious of claims

Tread carefully when considering any product that reckons it's better than the one on the shelf next to it. Marketing prey on consumer demand for healthier alternatives. Be aware of those screaming 'less fat' 'no added sugar' 'fat free'.

Don't go near long ingredients lists

The less ingredients listed, the healthier it tends to be. Additives, preservatives, thickners and fillers aren't required for good health - so there's no need to get them in your belly. This rule does not apply if you're using wholefoods to cook up a storm - go crazy in the kitchen.

Nutritional info can be hard to decipher. Photo / Thinkstock
Nutritional info can be hard to decipher. Photo / Thinkstock

Check: per serve or per 100g?

If you do compare products, always look at the per 100g column on the NIP and not per serve. Manufacturers manipulate the serving size to appear healthy. Breakfast cereals are notorious for this. Better to choose wholesome oats or throw out your cereal and replace it with fruit and yoghurt.

Don't let cartoons lure you in

If a product needs pictures to grab your attention - or more often, your child's - then it's not worth buying. The same can be said about cute television commercials selling you food - about 95 per cent of these promote processed junk.

Cartoon covered packaging probably doesn't contain nutritious food. Photo / Thinkstock
Cartoon covered packaging probably doesn't contain nutritious food. Photo / Thinkstock

If you can cook it in seconds it's probably bad

Zapping a pizza or pie in the microwave is a sign you shouldn't be eating it. Try making your own version of the meal in a minute - from pasta sauce to coleslaw, there are plenty of healthy recipes floating around.

Keep food close

Food looses its nutritional value and quality when traveling long distances. Eating local and seasonal is best. It's also cheaper and supports your local community. If you buy from farmers' markets, you'll also get to see the face behind the food you eat which is a pretty nice feeling.

Try buy produce fresh from your local farmers markets. Photo / Thinkstock
Try buy produce fresh from your local farmers markets. Photo / Thinkstock

Get out of the supermarket

Supermarkets are tricky environments for those wanting to eat well. They're packed with temptations and traps that will distract you from your shopping list. If you need to venture in, stick to the outer isles where all of the good stuff is. Ideally, get most of your tucker from as close to the source as you can - markets, butchers and grow your own.

* Dave Shaw is a New Zealand registered dietitian and nutritionist. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 30 Dec 2014 01:00:49 Processing Time: 297ms