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What’s really in our food? A guide to reading labels.

‘Lite’, ‘low fat’ and ‘sugar free’ doesn’t always mean healthy

Sugar is now found in 80% of the foods we eat. And while most food items are OK in moderation, it’s the sugar we don’t know we’re consuming that can be the most harmful. Seemingly healthy foods like low-fat yoghurt, cereal or muesli bars can be jam-packed full of added sugars. You might be one of the many people out there thinking that foods labelled lite, low fat, or sugar free, are the healthier choice. But unless you can decipher the complex package labelling on these items, you probably can’t see that sometimes “sugar free” is code for “full of fat”

Healthy star system for food packaging

Misleading packaging is a common complaint the world over. New Zealand have tackled it head on by developing a health star rating system for their food products, resembling the star ratings we see on our refrigerators and washing machines (although those are rating power and water efficiencies). This voluntary star system is a front-of-pack labelling system which rates the healthiness of products using a five-star scale. These ratings are based on a formula developed by experts to give an overall nutritional profile to a product. The ratings go from 1/2 a star to 5 stars, with 5 stars being the most healthy.


Hidden sugars

Damon Gameau’s now famous documentary That Sugar Film has exposed a lot of these myths around healthy eating. The film followed Gameau’s 60 day journey to eat only the perceived ‘healthy’ foods we find on our supermarket shelves. That means lollies and chocolate were out, but fruit smoothies and anything labelled ‘lite’ were allowed. He found that this diet of ‘healthy’ foods had a strongly negative effect on his mood and ability to concentrate. The overall effect on his body was even worse: increased waist fat, and early signs of coronary problems.

Types of sugar

When you take a look at an ingredients label on the back of your favourite foods, it doesn’t always have the word ‘sugar’ there in plain English. So learning what code words, or alternatives, are used to describe sugar content can help you better understand what you’re putting in your body.

Here are the most common ones:

1. Glucose - It can be found in a range of foods, including fruit and honey. When your body takes processes the carbohydrates you consume, your body actually produces glucose.

2. Sucrose - Commonly known as table sugar, sucrose is obtained from sugarcane, sugar beets or other fruits and vegetables. This is the type of sugar we purchase from the supermarket to bake cakes or put in drinks.

3. Fructose - Fructose is a sugar found naturally in honey or whole fruits and vegetables

4. Lactose - This is a sugar found naturally in milk and dairy products. Some people can be intolerant or allergic to lactose.

Sucrose, glucose and fructose are types of carbohydrates, often referred to as simple sugars. Carbohydrates are an important part of any diet, but they need to be in moderation.

Good carbohydrates

We all need carbohydrates to function, but so often we choose the naughty kinds that are loaded with sugar for a quick energy fix, but don’t give us the long lasting energy we need. Potatoes, white bread, and white pasta taste amazing but they don’t fill us up as much as wholegrain carbohydrates. Here are some popular carbohydrates alongside their slightly healthier counterpart:

Common carbohydrate food

Healthy alternative

Potatoes

Kumara

White pasta

Wholegrain pasta

Chippies

Wholegrain crackers

White rice

Brown rice

Honey roasted or salted peanuts

Almonds or cashews (unsalted)

Mustard

Honey Mustard

Sweet wine

Dry wine

How do I know when a food has been genetically modified?

Here in New Zealand we do not have genetically grown crops, nor do we allow genetically modified (GM) fruit, vegetables or meat to be sold. We do however allow some processed foods to contain GM ingredients but they are subject to strict labelling requirements.

In New Zealand you may find there are GM ingredients described on your food labels. These ingredients are usually derived from GM crops like:

  • corn

  • canola

  • soybean

  • sugarbeet

A GM ingredient must be clearly identifiable in the label, it may look something like this:

Ingredients: wheat flour, yeast, soy flour (genetically modified), water, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, emulsifiers (471, 472E), preservative (282), enzyme (amylase).

Reading allergy warnings

A lot of products will have a clear warning on their label when the ingredients include nuts or dairy, or even when the product is made on the same factory line as something containing peanuts. However if you’re concerned about triggering an allergy it’s always best to read the ingredients list thoroughly. And if you’re still concerned then you can always call the manufacturer - they must provide their contact details on the product label.

Figuring out whether a food is imported

Country of origin labelling for food is voluntary in New Zealand. Food sold in New Zealand, whether produced locally or imported, is not required to display where it or its ingredients originated from. Packaged food must however have contact details for distributors or manufacturers in New Zealand, so you can ask for more information. Even though it’s not compulsory, many products will state where they’re grown or made. Again, take a close look at the label. A lot of Australian products, for example, will have a small picture or map of Australia to indicate it’s from there.

Understanding the nutrition information on food labels

A nutrition information panel that you find on food and beverage labels is different to the ingredients list. The nutrition information panel will show the following things in relation to a standard serving size and 100g/100mL of the food:

  • energy content (expressed in kilojoules or in both kilojoules and calories (kilocalories))

  • protein

  • fat

  • saturated fat

  • carbohydrate

  • sugars

  • sodium3 (expressed in milligrams; or both milligrams and millimoles)

  • and any other nutrient or biologically active substance

Sometimes the word ‘slice’, ‘pack’, or ‘package’ may replace the term ‘serving’. For example, on the back of a packet of plastic cheese slices.

Staying healthy, staying informed

Learning to read what the labels on your food actually mean is just one way you can make the step towards living a healthy lifestyle. Living a healthy lifestyle can do more than increase your lifespan, it can get you a discount on Cigna’s LifeOne Insurance premiums. Check out our life insurance policy for more information.

Further reading