Food labelling: The facts

April 12, 2013 - Nutrition

foodlabelling600x812The label on a food packet is designed to entice and inform us, but how much do they really tell us about what our food contains? In the wake of the recent horse meat scandal, people are more conscious than ever about what they’re eating. Here, we uncover the facts…

Front of label
No added sugar / fat free / sugar-free
This doesn’t mean a product will have a low sugar content. It may contain artificial sweeteners, concentrated fruit juices and non sucrose sugars, the last two of which are just as bad for your oral health and full of calories.

Virtually fat-free
Less than 0.5g of total fat per 100g.

Low fat / reduced fat
This can only be used for foods that contain less than 3g of fat per 100g. But low-fat spreads can contain as much as 40% fat, more than whipping creams. So it always pays to check the label.

Natural / pure
Be wary of these terms as they don’t actually mean that the end product is pure or natural – all it means is that the manufacturer started with a natural source before processing.

Reduced calorie
If a product is labelled ‘reduced calorie’, it must be 25% lower in calories than the usual version of the same product.

This doesn’t necessarily mean a product is lighter in fat or calories. Sometimes there’s very little difference between a standard product and its ‘light’ equivalent. It’s best to compare brands and take nothing at face value.

This term, often used to describe a supermarket’s ‘best’ own-brand product range, currently has no legal meaning, and therefore doesn’t actually mean it tastes better or is better for you. The only thing you can guarantee is that you’ll pay more!

If the label says ‘wholegrain’ then check the ingredients list, as manufacturers are not legally required to say how much ‘wholegrain’ is in a product. Look for whole oats, brown rice, whole rye or similar, not enriched with wheat flour.

The term ‘raspberry flavour’ doesn’t mean that the food necessarily contains any fruit – just artificial flavouring. A ‘raspberry’ smoothie or yoghurt must, by law, contain real fruit – but the amount may be small and there may still be artificial flavours.

Most pre-packed foods have nutrition labels on the back or the side of the packaging. This indicates the amount of energy, protein, carbohydrates and fat a product has. It may also provide information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium and fibre content. There are NHS guidelines to tell you if a food is high in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar or not.

Total fat
Low – 3g of fat or less per 100g
High – more than 20g of fat per 100g

Saturated fat
Low – 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g
High – more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g

If you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, limit your consumption of foods that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.

Low – 5g of total sugars or less per 100g
High – more than 15g of total sugars per 100g

Low – 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
High – more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium). To convert sodium to salt, x 2.5

Sugars / sweeteners
Sucrose, fructose, dextrose, glucose, honey, molasses, maltose, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice and fruit juice concentrate are all types of natural sugar. They’re not to be confused with natural sweeteners like stevia and sucralose, or artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, mannitol and isomalt, which are synthetic sugar substitutes.

These are common food preservatives, typically found in processed meat products – such as luncheon meat and bacon. However, while sodium nitrate helps prevent bacterial cultivation in meat products, it poses its own health risk in that it can turn into a cancer-promoting substance in the human body.

Sodium occurs naturally in many foods and is also added in the form of salt or other sodium-containing substances. Other words that mean high sodium include brine, disodium phospate, sodium alginate, sodium hydroxide, sodium sulphite, baking powder and baking soda.

Wheat flour / enriched flour
These are refined flours that typically have had the germ and bran removed, and only have a small amount of whole wheat added back in.

Farm foods
Organic / organically grown
This tells you nothing about the origins of your product, how it was produced or the nutritional value. Only go for products that say ‘certified organically grown’.

Farm fresh
This has nothing to do with animal welfare and is little more than a clever marketing ploy. Red Tractor The British Food Standard is promoted as providing food that offers higher welfare standards and food standards. However, Friends of the Earth claims that these standards are rarely better than minimum standards.

Lion Mark
This indicates food safety but again, like Red Tractor, it generally only ensures compliance with minimum legislation requirements. These standards do little to prevent serious animal welfare issues, such as confinement in cages, fast-growing breeds and mutation issues.

Sounds cosy, but for poultry it means there can be 12 chickens per square metre of land. They can be sent to slaughter after the 56th day of rearing without ever going outside.

Free range
This means that animals have access to the outdoors for at least part of their life. Around 40% of cows are kept free range. There are currently no EU regulations for pigs.