Call me crazy but I really enjoy grocery shopping.
Maybe it’s just being surrounded by all that food but I relish the time roaming the aisles to look at new products and daydreaming about all the dishes I’m going to make and eat, or maybe it’s just that it’s my only real alone time as my child refuses to come shopping with me. Either way, it’s an activity I am very comfortable with - but I know for a lot of people the supermarket can be a confusing and sometimes overwhelming place, particularly if you’re trying to make healthy choices.
This month’s how-to article focuses on how to read food labels and nutritional information panels – deciphering which parts are important and what kind of values you should be aiming for. Remember that losing weight doesn’t have to be a terrible experience; often its small, simple changes that make the biggest difference over time. Being able to compare brands and work out which one is better suited to your needs can make a huge difference to your wallet and your waist line.
Step One: Ingredients list
The ingredients list is always the first thing I check. Why? Because if it has a huge list of additives and preservatives then I usually put it back and find a better option. Also because by law companies are required to list the ingredients in descending order – meaning the main ingredient is listed first, the second most prevalent ingredient is listed second and so on. This makes it really easy for you to see which of your favourite products are very high in sugar and salt. Main ingredients (those advertised on the label) must also list the percentage of that item in the product – so you can see exact amounts and make an accurate comparison.
Step Two: Energy
Energy is listed in kilojoules in Australia, but a lot of products will also list calories which I personally prefer to work with (smaller numbers equals less confusion!). Energy values can be a real eye opener – you may find that some so-called snacks pack in as many, if not more, kilojoules than a main meal. Even if you’re not into calorie counting it’s still useful to know the relative energy density of what you’re eating.
Step Three: Serving Size
The nutritional panel always contains information on the serving size of that product. This bit is really important because what the company says is a serving size and what you consider to be a serving size may not be the same thing. For example, the nutritional information on a packet of mixed lollies I looked at lists the serving size as 4.5 lollies. Who the heck eats only 4.5 lollies?! Similarly packets of chips and chocolates often have much smaller “serving sizes” than what we actually eat. The energy value of a product is only useful if you know how much of that product you’re eating.
Step Four: Per Serve VS Per 100gm
The information panel is always divided into two columns: per serve and per 100g. Per serve is good to look at so you know how much you’re taking in at a time, per 100g is crucial for making accurate comparisons of similar products. If you’re comparing two different brands ALWAYS use the per 100g – that way you won’t get tricked into thinking one is lower in energy, fat and sugars just because it’s recommended serving size is smaller.
Step Five: Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are broken into two categories – total and simple. Total refers the to the total amount of carbohydrate in that food (duh..) and simple refers to the amount of sugar, or simple carbohydrates. The closer the simple carbohydrate is to the number of total carbohydrate, the greater percentage that food’s carb content is mostly sugar. If however there is a big difference between the total and simple carbohydrate totals, a larger portion of that food’s carb content comes from indigestible starches like fibre. If you’re keeping an eye on your weight and on your sugar consumption then look closely at the simple carbohydrates, aim for less than 10g per 100g but use your common sense if that product contains high levels of fruit (which will increase the sugar content but also increase the nutritional value).
Step Six: Fibre
We all know fibre is important for bowel health and for helping us feel full. If a product contains 3-6g of fibre in a serve then it is considered a high fibre food. When comparing products always go for the brand with the highest fibre content.
Step Seven: Salt
Salt is in everything these days, and while a little salt is just fine when we’re unknowingly consuming loads of salt it can lead to multiple health problems. Low salt products are defined as those with less than 120mg of sodium per 100g. Always choose low or reduced salt options and try to aim for less than 300mg of sodium per 100g.
Step Eight: Fats
When the obesity epidemic first started taking hold people’s answer was to move to low-fat alternatives. While we now know low-fat foods tend to be much higher in sugar and salt it can be still be good to keep an eye on fat content. Low fat products are defined as those with less than 5g of fat per 100g, and only low-fat foods are allowed to make claims about being a percentage fat-free. Choosing reduced fat options can help cut back on unnecessary calories, just make sure that energy isn’t being replaced by simple sugars.
The other thing to take note of is the amount of trans fats. I believe in an eating philosophy of
moderation, balance and flexibility so there’s really nothing I would ever advise someone that they have to cut out of their diet forever. HOWEVER - if there was something that came close it would be trans fats. They increase the risk of heart disease by increasing our levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and decrease our levels of ‘good’ cholesterol. Trans fats are naturally occurring in small amounts I meat and dairy products but found frequently in processed foods like deep-fried and baked goods due to the way the oils in those foods are processed. Aim for products with no trans fats and avoid food containing hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils.
Other things to remember
Ignore the Percentage RDIs
These values are often listed on nutritional information panels and reflect how much a serve of that food contributes to the recommended daily intake of an average adult. Unfortunately only a very small percentage of us require the same amount of macro and micronutrients as the “average adult” so take these numbers very lightly as they’re most likely not accurate for your needs.
Carefully consider the health claims
Food companies will say anything to get you to buy their products, even if it means being deceptive or bending the truth. ‘Light’ or ‘lite’ don’t necessarily refer to energy value; they can mean colour, taste or lower levels of a certain ingredient. ‘No cholesterol’ is advertised now that heart disease is one of the leading causes of preventable death, however cholesterol is only found in animal products so if your frozen chips claim to be cholesterol free don’t be too impressed. ‘All natural’ is big now that there seems to be a global push towards minimizing our consumption of synthetic compounds (which I’m not necessarily against), just remember that plenty of substances that aren’t necessarily good for us (sugars, salt, etc) are actually ‘all natural’ substances.
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