Read the Label

By: Judy Davie - The Food Coach

Recently I was invited as a guest on ABC radio to talk about reading food labels. Years ago I wrote the book "Read the Label" and although the food labels have changed a bit since I wrote it, some things are the same as they ever were; and that is that reading food labels is terribly confusing for most people.

Now you might be wondering why a newsletter sent to people with an interest in fresh food would be covering an article about reading food labels when the only consideration we should make when buying fresh produce is where the food comes from. I should correct myself here and say that we should only do this if we care about the environment and seasonality: Personally I think everyone should care about that.

So let's imagine ourselves strolling down the greengrocer's aisles - the labels are there for all to see written clearly in big type - what the produce is, where it comes from and how much it costs. If only packaged food was so transparent.

Packaged food labels are not transparent and the most cynical amongst us might suggest that this is deliberately so. I don't believe it's deliberate but you do have a lot of pushing and pulling between FSANZ and a very powerful food industry. FSANZ is Food Standards Australia and New Zealand and they are the people who enforce labelling guidelines on the industry. The food manufacturers are the mob trying to sell you stuff. Never forget that they are trying to sell you stuff and they have the packaging on which to do it on. If the most brilliant marketers where able to cover apples with writing there wouldn't be an apple left on the shelf there's so much good to say about apples.

So what should you look for on packaging when you are buying manufactured food? Can we rely on Health Star Ratings or the sugar content in the nutritional panel? The answer to both these questions is no. Right now the health star rating designed to be an easy reference to selecting the most healthy packaged foods is a voluntary system and not on all packaged foods. It allows food manufacturers to be selective on which foods they apply the rating to or not. Typically it's only used by the big end of town, the large food manufacturers with the budget to apply the labeling. Some of the smaller manufacturers with healthier products simply don't have the budget to repackage their products.

When it comes to sugar that is a contentious issue. On the nutritional panel where the amount of sugar is given in grams. Products like milk, natural yoghurt, and natural muesli appear to have sugar when the sugar in the product comes from natural sugar in the form of lactose (in milk) and fructose (in dried fruit). The World Health Organisation recommends we limit our intake of "empty nutrients" from sugar to between 5 and 10 tsp a day. Some perspective on this is to recognise that a 600 ml bottle of cola had more than 16 tsp of sugar. One teaspoon of sugar is the equivalent to approximately 4 g.

Earlier this month state and federal food ministers from Australia and New Zealand, agreed to request FSANZ to review nutrition labelling and include added sugars to the nutrition panel on packaged foods. If and when it happens we'll have reason to celebrate, until then we'll have to rely on a bit of nous and refer to the ingredient list to find out whether a product contains added sugar. Sugar in packaged food has many names so look out for names like glucose, maltose, corn syrup, golden syrup, sucrose, barley malt, rice malt, coconut syrup, honey, polydextrose, maltodextrose and treacle, and remember when these ingredients are listed at the front of the list there is more sugar in the product than all the ingredients listed after it.

There are other things to look for as well when buying packaged food; how much salt and saturated fat a product contains and how much energy in a realistic serve. I'd also suggest you throw back any product with a list of ingredients you don't recognise as they're most likely additives your body could do without.

In an ideal world your food basket and trolley will be filled with fresh produce with no packaging other than a bag to hold it in - certainly that's what I suggest you strive for - but in your journey towards this healthy food utopia, please read the labels.


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