So, the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been on our TV screens recently with his "Fat Fight" programme. I've watched it and I recommend that you do too, if nothing else to wake yourself up to the food industry and how it employs various underhand tactics to encourage consumers to buy it's products. You may be surprised to learn that most food manufacturers are not interested in keeping you healthy - they're only interested in profit! (even the ones that purport to be healthy!!). Hugh is doing a good job of raising awareness and holding them to account - great news. This is all very well and good, but what do you actually need to know in terms of food labelling when you go and do your weekly shopping? Well, read on to find out...
Without having to spend hours in the supermarket here's some important things to watch out for.
The current "traffic light" system is an improvement, but it is a voluntary scheme that isn't enforced by anyone. So companies don't have to use it. It is a useful, quick indicator of what is in what you are buying but it does have some limitations. Next time you are looking at one check what portion size it's referring to (and it should tell you this - but sometimes in very small writing!). Sometimes what's in the pack is more than the portion/serving size referred to in the traffic light label. So for instance it may only tell you what's in 1/4 of the pack, so you have to x4 to get the actual nutritional value of what's in the pack. That might be okay if you're only going to eat 1/4 of it at a time. but how many of us are going to only eat 1/4 of a packet of crisps, or 100ml of a 330ml bottle of fruit juice? I often see packaging (especially cereals) referring to a "30g portion". Have you actually measured how much 30g of cereal is? It's not very big and most people will probably have double this for breakfast!
If there is no traffic lights on the package then you can check the ingredients on the pack - which by law must be provided. The ingredients listed on the pack are in order of amount in the product, with the biggest first. So if you see "fructose" listed as number 2, that basically means that sugar (fructose is another name for sugar) is the second biggest ingredient in there. Personally I'd probably put that one back on the shelf! Sugar comes in many guises when it comes to food labelling, and in general manufacturers will try and hide the fact their products contain sugar. They do this by calling it something else - usually ending in an "ose". It's all the same thing, it's just a sneaky way of writing it down So, fructose, maltose, glucose, lactose etc etc.... are all sugars and all count towards your daily sugar allowance. Which is around 24g per day, if you are an adult, and 16g for a child. This equates to 6 teaspoons for an adult and 4 for a child (4g sugar = 1 teaspoon). Any more than that and your body will most likely store it as excess fat.
Fats in themselves also come in different shapes and forms when it comes to food. It is perfectly legal for a company to label a food as "low in saturated fat" but it can be high in another type of fat, so it's just as bad for you and you don't realise it. This is a trick manufacturers use to fool you into thinking their products are healthier. A while ago I was in a well-known fast food restaurant (yes I do occasionally visit these, I am normal too!) and I was looking at the labelling on a small packet of fries. Of the 237 calories in the pack, 17% of those calories came from fat, and of that 17%, 7% of that was saturated fat. This labelling is designed to trick you. You look at the label and think "ah well, only 7% saturated fat - that's not too bad". But where's the missing 12% gone? 12% of that product is still fat, but what type? It could be trans fats (hydrogenated fats), which are very commonly used in the food and catering industry. You may have heard of them before, and not for good reasons - here's why.
What are hydrogenated fats and why do I need to know about them? Trans fats, a form of processed (hydrogenated) cooking oil, have been identified as one of the most dangerous food additives. Hydrogenation is a process by which a liquid unsaturated fat is turned into a solid fat by adding hydrogen. Food companies began using hydrogenated oil to help increase shelf-life and save costs, improve texture and the stability of foods. Trans fats are used in shortenings for deep-frying in restaurants, as they can be used for longer than most conventional oils before becoming rancid - mmm nice! During this process a type of fat called "trans fat" is made. Trans fats are also naturally found at very low levels in foods such as dairy products, beef and lamb. However, the type of trans fat found in dairy products (such as milk, cheese and cream) is different to other types of trans fat and are not considered harmful to health.
Hydrogenated oils can affect heart health because they increase “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lower “good” (HDL) cholesterol. Still, food manufacturers continue to use them — especially partially hydrogenated oils (POH). You can tell how ‘saturated’ a fat is by its texture at room temperature. Saturated fats like lard, fat on meat and cheese are solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats - such as vegetable oils - are liquid at room temperature. As an unsaturated oil is gradually more hydrogenated, the inserted hydrogen atoms make it firmer and more solid at room temperature.
There is research to link them to a host of major health problems including cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, liver problems, infertility and depression to name a few. Trans fats have been effectively banned in several countries including Denmark, Austria, Hungary, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland and some parts of the USA including New York and California. Unfortunately rather than improve the ingredients in their products and make them healthier, many companies have simply chosen to replace these fats with another fat - typically palm oil.
In the UK, an outright ban has not been supported by the Government. Instead the Government has urged food companies to cut down on the levels of trans fats in products on a voluntary basis. In a country where 60% of the population is obese this is simply not good enough.
Hydrogenated oil isn’t always easy to spot, but there are ways to spot it and avoid it. Biscuits, cakes, pastries, meat pies, sausages, frozen pizzas, margarine, ice cream, fast foods and foods containing coconut or palm oil all tend to be high in saturated fats. It is thought that a number of foods still contain them, listed as ‘mono and diglycerides of fatty acids’. This is perfectly legal, as they have still listed the ingredients but have put them in terminology that the average consumer will not understand.
Okay - but what about those "healthy" spreads that you put on your toast in the morning. You think you're doing well by not using butter? Well, here's a list of the ingredients of one of the most popular brands, Bertolli, which markets itself as being "healthy":
Vegetable oils in varying proportions (39%)(rapeseed, palm, sunflower), water, olive oil (21%), buttermilk (MILK)(4%), salt (1.1%), emulsifiers (mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids), preservative (potassium sorbate), acid (citric acid), natural flavouring, vitamins A and D, colour (carotenes)
I don't think I'll be putting that on my sandwiches! We use butter in our house - at least I know what's in that! (or Lurpak spreadable, since you ask!)
Companies will try many tricks to fool you into thinking their product is healthy and you should therefore buy it. It's all done through clever marketing. As Hugh pointed out in his programme, cereal manufacturers are one of the worst. They package products (often aimed at children) covered in phrases like "wholegrain", put pictures of cartoon characters on the front etc. But the reality is their products are often full of sugar. Until Hugh contacted the two major producers in the UK - Nestle and Kellogs - neither of them had the traffic light system clearly visible on their products. And most children will be having more than the recommended portion of 30g.
So next time you go shopping, what steps can you take to improve what's in your trolley? Here's some pointers to bear in mind.
1. The less processed a food is, the better it will be for you (this is a general rule of thumb). This is one of the reason's why cooking from scratch whenever you can is better for you. It's not just usually cheaper, but you will be able to control what's in what you eat much better
2. Read the labels and look out for the small print!
3. Avoid anything containing trans-fats, hydrogenated fats, mono and diglycerides of fatty acids
4. Look out for sugars listed as the top ingredients (anything ending with an "ose")
5. Don't be fooled by products that are being marketed as "healthy" - check the labels!
6. Look out for other fat content on items - not just "saturated" fats
I really hope that you feel more knowledgeable and informed about food labelling after reading this. It's something I feel quite passionate about! Unfortunately it's also something the government is in no hurry to improve or legislate for. So it's left to us, the consumers, to educate ourselves about what's in what we and our families are eating. So be smart, read the labels and don't be fooled!!
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Exercise For Mum's was created by PT mum Susan Flintoff. Susan is a busy working mum of two who specialises in helping other busy mum's fit health and fitness back into their lives, and hopes to inspire them to be the best mum they can be!!