Are you a label reader? Lots of people are; it's arguable there's never been so much interest in what's in our food. But who among us has time to scrutinise every label when they're shopping? Are there shortcuts we can take to make sure only the healthy stuff gets into our trolleys?
The best shortcut probably, is to avoid labels altogether. It's a generalisation, but mostly true, that the healthiest food is the fresh, whole stuff that's usually around the outside of the supermarket; food that usually doesn't need nutrition labels at all. Load up most of the trolley with these, and we can't go far wrong. It fits with what we know is a recipe for health: lots of whole foods; plenty of plants; minimal processed stuff.
That doesn't mean everything in the middle aisles is unhealthy, of course. While I admire people who say "I don't eat anything that comes in packets," for most of us – myself included – it's unrealistic to take that approach.
That means being smart about what we see on the packaged food we buy. Over the years I've spent many hours looking at product labels, and I reckon I can save you some of those hours with some tips that can make it relatively painless to do the weekly shop.
First, ignore any claims on the front of the pack. These are mostly marketing, and mostly pretty meaningless. I'm talking here about things like "healthy"; "natural"; "wholefood"; "superfood"; "paleo friendly". None of these terms has an official definition. That means they can mean whatever the food producer wants them to mean, and they're often likely to mislead.
It also pays to keep an eye out for "sugar-free" and "refined sugar-free". Again, these are not really defined terms, so manufacturers are playing fast and loose with the labelling claims. I've lost count of the products I've seen boasting "refined sugar-free" that are still loaded up with sugar in other forms: coconut sugar, rice syrup, fruit juice or honey. Using the World Health Organisation's definition, these are all still sugar and no better than the white stuff.
You may find a health star rating icon on the front of food packaging. This is a voluntary system, so it's not on everything. It's based on a food's nutrients and kilojoules, with plus points given if a food is lower in saturated fat, sugar or salt, or if it's higher in healthy nutrients and ingredients like fibre, protein, fruits and vegetables. This works to a point – in general the more stars something has, the healthier it is. But the system throws up some weird anomalies (Paddle Pops get 3 stars, for example; chocolate milk gets 4.5 stars) and it's not designed to be used to compare different types of products. This is not well understood, and it's fair to say it's likely to confuse us.
If you're unsure about a product, it pays to turn it over and look at the stuff every manufacturer has to put on the pack by law: that's the ingredients list and the Nutrition Information Panel.
The ingredients list is not a bad indication of the level of processing. The shorter the list, in general terms, the less processed the food. It's useful to remember that ingredients are required to be listed in order of quantity; the ingredient that makes up the biggest proportion of the food is listed first, and so on. You know, then, that if the first ingredient is sugar (or one of its many aliases), or refined flour, or salt, for example, this may not be something you want to eat a lot of. And if the list is very long, and contains a lot of things you don't recognise, it's likely this is something pretty highly processed that may not pack in the best nutrition.
The Nutrition Information Panel is the most technical part of a food label, and arguably the least well understood. Although this is legally required, there's still room for spin here, too, in the column marked "per serving". That's because "serving size" is not defined by law; a manufacturer can define the serving size for a product. So a packet of chips can say it contains 3.7 servings, for example. Or a tub of ice cream can have 4.5 servings. I don't know about you, but my maths is not up to those kinds of calculation when I'm standing in the supermarket. I think the "per serve" column has limited value.
What can be useful is to look at the "per 100 grams" column. This at least is a way of showing percentages (something that's got 10g of sugar per 100g is 10 per cent sugar) and it's also a valid way of comparing one product with another. This is useful if you're stuck making a decision between two items.
As far as what to give priority to on a label? That's really a personal decision. We're still pretty fixated on sugar, but I'd suggest sodium (salt) and saturated fat need your attention too. With all of these, the lower the number, the better.