Food Labelling Explained
Most parents know that healthy eating is important for children’s mental and physical health though many feel they are falling short of the ideal. Factors that get in the way of healthy eating include picky eating, availability, time, convenience and cost.
This month’s blogs will look at a few things to take into account when feeding children.
Food Labelling Explained
Food labels can be confusing with claims that sound healthy but that may be disguising the fact that they are processed and low in nutrients. Let’s pick apart what these words and phrases actually tell us about the food inside.
Pre-packed food products have a list of ingredients on the packaging. The ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the foods listed first make up the bulk of the product. This is helpful to know, however, just because an ingredient is low down on the list doesn’t mean it’s negligible. Some ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners and additives, may be toxic even in low doses.
Low fat means a product has 3g or less fat per 100g. Foods labeled as low fat are often diet foods that may contain sugar, artificial sweeteners and additives. We now know that fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Fat becomes a problem if it is refined, overly heated or processed. Most fast foods and junk foods contain these processed fats. These should be avoided. But foods that naturally contain unprocessed fats such as nuts, seeds and cold pressed oils can and should be included regularly in the diet.
Reduced fat means a product is 25 per cent lower in fat than the standard product from the same company. Foods labelled reduced fat are often relatively high fat foods such as mayonnaise, crisps and cheese. The reduced fat versions contain other ingredients, such as additives and thickeners, to make up for the reduction in fat. They are not necessarily the healthier option. They may also lead to extra consumption as they are seen as less of an indulgence.
Light or Lite
For a food to be labelled as “Light” (referring to salt, sugar or fat reduction) it must contain 50% less than the original product. However, some foods labelled light are referring to taste or colour such as light brown sugar or light beer.
As with foods labelled Low Fat, labelling a food as Light may lead people to consume more of it as they experience less consumption guilt and increase serving sizes.
‘Natural’ evokes something unprocessed and healthy, but it doesn’t have much meaning on food labels. For a product to be labelled as natural the ingredients used should be produced naturally. This is vague and allows for many unhealthy ingredients.
The Many Names for Sugar
Sugar is not always listed in the ingredients as ‘sugar’. Other names for sugar include sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, honey, palm sugar, hydrolysed starch, syrup and invert sugar. The higher up on the ingredients list sugar is, the more added sugar is in the product. Often foods contain more than one type of sugar meaning each one is not first in the list but combined they would be.
Low Sugar or Sugar Free
A food can only be labelled as ‘low sugar’ if it contains no more than 5g of total sugars per 100g. However, foods labeled as low sugar or sugar free often contain artificial sweeteners. These have a negative effect on the gut microbiome and may affect normal appetite mechanisms. They are best avoided.
No Added Sugar
No added sugar does not necessarily mean a product is low in sugars as it may contain ingredients that are naturally high in sugar such as dried fruit.
Any food labelled as a diet food is likely to contain artificial sweeteners, thickeners, flavourings and other additives. They are best avoided. Instead buy wholefood ingredients and cook from scratch.
Many foods are labelled as superfoods these days. However, there isn’t an accepted definition of what a superfood is. It’s a marketing term. That said, superfoods are usually high in antioxidants that are beneficial for many aspects of health. Often foods labelled as superfoods are relatively expensive but they may not be any more nutritious than standard fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Go for variety rather than focussing on one or two ‘superfoods’.
Food can only be labelled as organic if at least 95% of the product’s agricultural ingredients are organically produced and all other ingredients, additives and processing aids are permitted within organic regulations.
Red, Amber, Green
Some food labels use red, amber and green colour coding. This is designed to tell you at a glance if the food is high, medium or low in fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Red means high, amber means medium and green means low.
However, this can be misleading as some foods high in fat are good for us such as nuts, seeds, coconut oil and olive oil and some low fat foods may not be beneficial to health.
For more information about how to get your children to make healthy food choices see blog post Tell Children Benefits of Food, and for information on how much you eat could affect your offspring see blog post on Fasting and Future Generations.