Do you read the nutrition labels on the food you buy?
Here’s why it matters.
Listen, I usually drive my husband Greg bananas having to stand in the supermarket and read the nutrition labels of everything that comes in a package, but here’s why I do it.
Because packaging is designed to entice you to buy and consume. Also, food companies bank on you not reading the fine print.
They distract you with huge labels on the front of their packaging like “no artificial sweeteners” or “97% fat free” or my personal infamous pet peeve – “gluten free”.
And while they’re not technically lying, some products do sprout some very questionable half truths.
Let me explain.
So the other day, Greg and I were on our way to a friend’s barbecue.
We called into the supermarket to pick up a bit of party food (chippies, dip, meat, salad, you know, the usual). Since I was the designated driver and sober for the day, I thought I’d buy some sparkling water and lemon to feel festive.
I’m not big on soft drink as a rule. It’s incredibly sweet and drinking all my calories feels like a waste to me.
I mean, admittedly I love the heck out of a single serve bottle of Coca Cola every now and then, but as for something to drink all day?
A good flavoured sparkling water still makes your drink taste interesting, but it provides a lot of hydration and doesn’t come packed with sugar.
Plus it’s about $5 cheaper than kombucha.
We were hard pressed finding all the sparkling water, and time was of the essence. I found a bottle of “mineral water and lemon”, grabbed it and we were off on our merry way.
As I poured myself a drink I thought it tasted a bit sweeter than usual. (But I had just had a sip of margarita, so I thought maybe I just had a salty palate).
However, throughout the afternoon, I got a weird, sickly sweet feeling in my belly and a throbbing headache. I also felt really dehydrated, and I thought – that’s weird – I only drank mineral water all day.
And that, boys and girls, is when I saw the label.
I thought I bought straight sparkling mineral water with lemon flavour. What I’d actually bought instead was glorified lemonade marketed as mineral water.
It had sugar, artificial sweeteners, and sulphites.
Each cup was worth about 106 calories and 26 g of carbohydrates (about the same as a whole slice of bread). Unlike a slice of bread however, those 26 g of carbs were straight sugar.
This sucker even had the audacity to advertise “50% less sugar” on the label (which I also obviously didn’t read – that would have been a red flag).
Less sugar than what, exactly? By comparison, there are only 22 g of sugar in the same amount of Kirk’s lemonade.
Okay now listen. If soft drink floats your boat, have at it!
I’m all for you making a conscious choice to buy a bottle of soft drink and enjoying it. What bothers me is when people think they’re choosing healthy foods and food companies dupe them into purchasing unhealthy food instead. This then leads to understandable confusion when they don’t seem to get results.
Companies are sneaky! They’ll market the weirdest stuff as health food:
- Protein bars with more calories, fat and sugar than a Snickers
- Vegan burgers with more trans fats than a Whopper Jnr
- Cereal so loaded with sugar you might as well just pour milk over a bowl full of TEX bars
That’s why it pays to get wise about what you’re buying.
Hey – if you’re choosing between snack bars, one is a “whipple-scrumptious caramel fudge bar” and the other is a “BroScience Superfood Power Bar”, both have the same number of fat, calories, and carbohydrates but one tastes like it was made by the hand of God Almighty and the other tastes like sawdust, which would you rather indulge in?
It’s nothing but clever marketing designed to make you buy their product, and pay $3 extra for the privilege because it’s got “healthy” on the label.
All that said, there are some products that do live up to their name and are healthy choices – so how do you know what to buy?
Here’s how not to get caught out, and make informed choices about what you’re buying at the supermarket.
Serving size: How big is a standard portion of this meal? These vary product to product.
Calories: This gives you a rough estimate of the calories in one portion. It’s not exact. However, it does give you a good picture of what you’re working with. Some knowledge of the calories in certain foods can be helpful.
Per 100g: This column provides a good benchmark for you to compare the nutrient levels in two different products per 100 g and is far more efficient than standing in the biscuit aisle trying to do brain maths to work out the difference in serving size and carbohydrate ratio between Tim Tams and Scotch Fingers.
Total fat: Current government guidelines recommend looking for foods with less than 10 g of fat per 100 g. However, for milk, yoghurt and ice cream, look for products for less than 2 g per 100 g. It’s different again for cheese – look for less than 15 g per 100 g.
Carbohydrates: Carbs are good for us, so don’t flip out if a product looks to be high in carbs. Instead, pay close attention to the two sub-columns beneath: sugar and fibre.
Sugar: Sugar is also not the enemy – our body needs it in small quantities to function normally. However, most people who eat a balanced diet get ample natural sugar from fruits, dairy and other sources, so rather than avoiding sugar completely, just try to limit lots of added sugar. A good rule of thumb is less than 15 g per 100 g. If you see a higher figure than this, make sure that sugar (or honey, sweetener, maple syrup, glucose, or anything ending in -ose et cetera) isn’t among the top ingredients. If it isn’t (or there’s no sugar added), it’s probably okay – especially if it has fruit in it.
Fibre: High fibre foods make life better – so much better. If a food is high in carbs and fibre, it’s likely a good choice. Fibre keeps you full and keeps the wheel greased, if you know what I mean. Not all nutrition labels list fibre levels, and many foods aren’t naturally high in fibre anyway. However, when you’re particularly choosing a cereal or bread, look for a fibre content of at least 3 g per serve.
Sodium: Our bodies need salt – but most of us get plenty of it through bread and naturally occurring foods. Keep a watchful eye on added sodium in products . Too much of it can bloat you and over time can even have health implications. Any product with less than 400 mg per 100 g is low in sodium – although government guidelines suggest less than 120 mg per 100 g is best.
Now, like I said – you don’t have to do this with everything you buy. If you just want to buy a packet of Tim Tams so you can eat Tim Tams, go for it and don’t even read that nutrition label.
But if you’re shopping for foods that can help you with your fitness goals and want to make informed choices, knowing a bit about the nutrition label can really help you stay on track and not get accidentally caught out.
If you want more information on how to read nutrition labels like a pro, head to these accredited resources for a bit of light reading:
- FDA – How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label
- Eat for Health – How to Understand Food Labels
And that’s on nutrition labels, team.
Have you ever got caught out with sneaky “health food” advertising before?
I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments.