Food labels can be very confusing and difficult to understand and often we don’t have the time to spend trying to work out what they mean and how to use them, writes Ramsbottom-based nutritional therapist, Helen Walker.
However, I do encourage my clients to read labels so that they know what they are really eating. They are often shocked by the amount of artificial ingredients, sugar, salt and saturated fat that can be added to foods. Knowing what nutritional information to look for can help you make the best choice for your health and avoid unnecessary saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and extra calories. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the unhealthy extras.
It’s worth remembering that the maximum government salt intake is just 6g as it is thought to affect heart health. There can be no need to add salt to your cooking or at the table to achieve that amount as it can be found naturally in a wide range of foods. However, it can also be added in high levels to processed and tinned foods. For example, a tin of soup can contain 2-3g on its own. So, the message here is to eat fresh where you can and be very careful about foods such as soups, bread and cereals.
Remember that salt can be listed as sodium, multiple the amount of sodium by 2.5 to find the salt equivalent, and even sweet foods like breakfast cereals or cereal bars can contain salt so you need to keep your wits about you.
Sugar is another unhealthy extra that you need to keep an eye on and my advice would be to limit added sugar as much as possible. Particular foods that can be worse, but seem healthier, are cereals, yoghurts, flavoured waters and sauces. For example, Red Berries Special K contains 19% sugar but is marketed as healthy! Also, beware of sweet foods that market themselves as ‘low fat’ as these can often contain high levels of sugar. Look out for other types of sugars such as fructose or sucrose on the labels and for further information on added sugars and health, check out the Action on Sugar campaign’s website.
Fats are an interesting area on food labels. There are some foods with higher levels of fats but which are thought to be beneficial such as salmon, mackerel, nuts, seeds and olive oil. These ‘good fats’ should be included in your diet. However, I would avoid added, saturated and trans fats such as a lot of red meat, pastry and cakes.
It’s also worth keeping an eye out for artificial ingredients. Generally, if you don’t recognise ingredients, avoid them. If the list on a label is too long – and many on packets and tins often are – then this is a sure sign that the food is highly processed and may be best avoided. Eating fresh wholefoods can help with this.
Finally, when you first check a label don’t forget to look at the serving size. Remember that all of the facts on the label are based on just one serving of the food but in reality, you may consume more than that.
Follow the above advice and you’ll learn to read labels to enable you to choose between foods you should eat more of and those you should limit or avoid altogether.