I noticed a curious thing the other day. The packet of sprouts I purchased had a Heart Foundation Tick on it. I was a bit flummoxed by this, not because I had issues with sprouts getting the Heart Foundation’s seal of approval, but that this food item needed a Tick in the first place.
Is food so confusing that people need a guide to determine that something green, fresh and sprouted from a seed with minimal human interference is good for you?
As sad as it may seem, the majority of consumers are completely confused when it comes to determining whether or not a food is good for them. They are bombarded with health claims, stars, ticks, nutrient percentages, the addition of vitamins, and contribution to overall daily energy requirements.
How much of this information is relevant to you and your health needs? Do you need to understand it all for it to be useful or is there a better way to navigate your way to better food choices? I believe there is.
My first piece of advice is to ignore any front of the pack nutrition claims or food guidance systems.
Be it one tick or two, a GI symbol, a star or some arbitrary claim that this food will fulfil X percentage of your dietary requirements, this is all marketing.
None of the numbers provided mean anything with regards to how healthy or otherwise that food is for you. The “pick the tick” dietary guidance system has been around for years and is not without its critics.
The newer kid on the block is the health star rating that has started to appear on cereal boxes, snack foods and the like. Products receive a star rating from 0.5 to five stars (higher is better) based on a balance of “negative” nutrients such as sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, and favourable nutrients including fibre, proteins, and fruit and vegetable content.
My problem with these systems is the reductionist nature that people are then using to guide their food choices. I have no doubt the intention of the star ratings or the pick the tick programme is to help people navigate good food choices, but we need a better understanding of how to use these guides — the nuances involved can often trip people up.
A food will be perceived to be healthier than others in its category (a frozen dessert compared to icecream) though it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a nourishing, good food choice. And even if we know that it’s not a “health food” (such as the frozen dessert), research shows the “health halo” provided by the tick or star rating leads people to overconsume a product, increasing fat, sugar and calorie consumption in a single sitting.
This may also come down to overall fulfilment of eating a “substitute” product for what they really wanted in the first place. For both of these reasons, they would have been better off enjoying a smaller amount of the real deal. Of course, there are some examples where the tick and the health star rating get it right (walnuts for example, get a big 5 out of 5).
Then there is the daily percentage of requirements based on the manufacturer’s arbitrary determination of your energy and nutrient needs. I find this unhelpful and extremely confusing for people who suddenly think they need to know their calories, their macronutrient percentages and their micronutrient intake in order to ensure they meet this mythical person who eats 8700kJ a day.
Further, many manufacturers have determined levels of sugar (as an example) that far exceed World Health Organisation recommendations, so that a high-sugar item might in fact look fairly moderate when it is calculated from the manufacturer's arbitrary sugar cut-offs. A system like this cannot account for activity levels, gender, sleep patterns, work situation and all the other factors that help determine an actual energy and nutrient requirement. I know these issues should be obvious but believe me, people are confused.
Health claims can also be meaningless.
The ones popping up more often are “gluten-free” “refined sugar-free” “baked not fried” and “cholesterol-free”.
For someone who needs to (or chooses to be) gluten-free, it is good for them to be aware of gluten content of the food — for others, it’s like a green light that suggests this is a healthy choice.
Many people dismiss gluten-free diets as being a fad, and that’s not me at all. However many gluten-free products are, and they tend to be higher in processed, refined flours (either carbohydrate or nut-based) along with considerable amounts of sugar.
I know this will sound pious but the best gluten-free product is one that isn’t in a package. Though there are regulations around some health claims (i.e. manufacturers need to show via the nutrient information panel the actual percentage of a vitamin if they claim their product is a substantial source of it), for others they are marketing ploys rather than meaningful.
And I would be a little suspicious of any traditionally sweet product claiming to be “sugar free” – often dried fruit, coconut sugar or maple syrup and other less refined sweet ingredients are used to replace refined white sugar.
To my mind, the healthfulness of these are completely overstated and any nutritional benefit is negligible compared to the benefit of minimising these overall in your everyday diet.
The last often used claim I want to mention is how “natural” or “organic” a food is. While not legislated, the food manufacturers should be able to show proof that processes used in the manufacturing of the product, or ingredients sourced, are “natural” or “organic”.
For organic foods, certification from a reputable organisation is required if the term “certified organic” is used, and for a food to claim that it is natural, manufacturers must ensure that the processing only has a minimal impact on the ingredient, doesn’t add anything artificial or synthetic, doesn’t create a chemical or biological change in the ingredient and doesn’t go beyond cooking processes needed to make the ingredient edible.
So now you know what you should dismiss, how can you use the back of the packet to help guide your food choices?
The nutrient information panel is an obvious choice, and here’s what to look for:
If using the nutrient information panel to determine overall calories from a food product, first check the serving size information. I have seen a milk that uses a 30ml serving size as opposed to the 200ml standard. Often snacks come in servings of two but are so energy-dense that they are small enough to look like just one. Use the per 100g column to compare like food products. This will give you accurate information as to which product is the better choice.
The sugar content of the food is required to be present on the nutrition information panel — it doesn't matter if the food product is refined sugar-free, low-fructose or sweetened with unicorn dust. Sugar is still sugar and this is labelled as such. The only caveat to this is sugar from milk products — this naturally occurring milk sugar accounts for around 5g of sugar (or just over a teaspoon) per 100g of a product. Added sugar will boost this amount and account for the rest, unless you are purchasing an extremely thick yoghurt with added milk solids. Whole fruit is the other obvious example of this (though we rarely buy it in a package). Fruit juice, fruit concentrate and dried fruit are all considered added sugar and should be treated as such. An apple fruit leather is not equivalent to an apple.
To my mind the most important information is the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed from the largest to smallest amounts and I'd largely agree with the premise that you should at least recognise the ingredients listed. I'd encourage you to buy the best product you can within a category and go for fewer numbers, additives and preservatives. I know many guides say "choose ingredients with no more than X number of ingredients", but for some foods that is just not possible. Compare brands to find the best one.
Over and above all that, make it easier on yourself and buy more foods that don’t require labels.
Through her subscription service of meal plans and nutritional support, nutritionist Mikki Williden helps people manage their diets in an interesting way, at a low cost. To find out more and to sign up, visit mikkiwilliden.com