Time for a rant. It’s been a while! And bear with me, cos this is a long one.
Food packaging. More specifically, misleading food packaging. Food packaging that purports to be containing a healthy food choice, and gives consumers the impression that they have made a nutritionally sound choice, when in fact the packaging is glossing over the fact that the food inside it is packed full of the devils that are refined sugars / additives / colourings (delete as appropriate, or sometimes it’s a triple whammy of the three of them, just to be extra evil). Food packaging targeted at children is often the worst (or is it the best?) at this. Brightly coloured packaging adorned with cartoon characters waves down at children from supermarket shelves, enticing them to nag their parents for that box of cereal or those tubes of yoghurt. And food manufactured specifically for kids has got to be nutritious surely? Hasn’t it? Well, no, not really…
Brightly coloured packaging adorned with cartoon characters waves down at children from supermarket shelves, enticing them to nag their parents for that box of cereal
We are all busy people, and nobody really has the time to stop and read long ingredients lists which may be confusing, comparing one loaf of bread, for example, to another 10 which all appear to be similar at first glance. Wholemeal is wholemeal, surely? Particularly if you are shopping with kids. Then anything goes; chuck it all into the trolley as quickly as possible, along with whatever they nag at you for, before the inevitable meltdown occurs, and try to leave the shop as quickly as possible, with your sanity still intact. So, if one pack of cheese is screaming, ‘low fat’ at you, that’s got to be the healthy choice, right? Right? Well, no, not really…
Confused? It’s no surprise really.
Labels on food packaging are supposed to be, according to the gov.uk website;
- clear and easy to read,
- easy to understand,
- easily visible, and
- not misleading.
They must also show a full list of ingredients, best before or use by dates and allergy information.
I’d like to think that I’m of at least average intelligence, yet I am constantly confused by food labels. Different brands display their information in varied formats, as do different stores. Then it’s a case of figuring out how many portions are in the packet, and whether the nutrition information is per portion or for the whole packet. And is it just me, or are suggested portions sizes of some high calorie foods rather small – in that it’s easy to eat a full double portion without thinking about it, meaning double the calories, fat and sugar that you thought you’d be eating.
Different brands display their information in varied formats, as do different stores
Key phrases and words crop up time and again on food packaging or in advertisements for products, but what do they really mean, and are they just confusing us more when we are trying our hardest to make an informed choice? Some phrases you may see on food packaging or in advertisements, include;
- No added sugar – sounds great, that’s got to be a healthy choice! But the product could still be high in sugars from the ingredients themselves, such as fruit or milk, or it could be loaded with artificial sweeteners, like aspartame. No added sugar doesn’t mean sugar free, although you could easily infer that from the labelling. And does ‘no artificial sweeteners’ actually mean there is less sugar in that product than another one?
- Enriched – again, gives the impression of a more nutritious food choice. What it actually means is that the food has been refined, or processed, meaning it has lost some of its nutrients. Pasta and bread are great examples of this. During the processing of the grain, virtually all of the B vitamins are removed, plus most of the minerals, all of the fibre and good fat, leaving a starchy, highly refined product with little nutritional value. By law, food manufacturers are required to add the B vitamins back in, however this is not in the same form as they were naturally present in the grain before processing. White pasta and bread packaging will list all of the B vitamins as additives, but not whole grain and wholemeal packaging – simply because whole real food doesn’t need to list what is already present.
- ‘Fresh’ / ‘pure’ / ‘natural’ – There is no legal definition for these words so they can be, and are, used freely to advertise various products, which can be very confusing and misleading for consumers. I openly admit that I’m something of a marketing manager’s dream consumer – I totally fall for anything advertising itself as a ‘natural’ product, because in my mind this means a superior, healthier, and more nutritious food. Please tell me I’m not the only one!
- Light/lite – this just means that the product is lower in fat or calories than the original version of that product. As an example, Philadelphia cream cheese has two ‘light’ options. Their ‘light’ still contains 16% fat, and their ‘extra light’ contains 5% fat. Hardly low fat, but advertised as a healthier option because the original version contains even more fat. Yikes!
- Low fat – In order to be described as ‘low fat’ a product has to contain less than 3g of fat per 100g by law. So, the ‘extra light’ Philadelphia cream cheese referenced above contains not far off double the amount of fat per 100g that a ‘low fat’ product can contain. This is hardly following the government recommendations that food labelling needs to be ‘not misleading’ is it?
- Reduced fat – I see this all the time on a wide variety of products, but there’s no legal definition for this statement, so it is basically meaningless. Often you can find, in small print on a food label, that this version of the product contains a certain % less fat than another version. But it is typically a minimal reduction in fat, and all too often the product has extra sugar added to replace the fat whilst keeping the taste attractive to consumers. And remember, 90% fat free, which is splashed across lots of product packaging, still means the food contains 10% fat!
I think that most consumers are quite wary of foods containing fat, perhaps a throw-back to the 80s when the diets of the day preached low fat was the way to go. However, it all depends on what sort of fat the food contains. Saturated fats and trans fats are the nasty ones we need to reduce or eliminate entirely from our diets, found mainly in fatty meats, processed foods, biscuits, cakes, takeaways etc. Unsaturated fats are needed by the body to help lower cholesterol, to protect our organs and to help absorb certain vitamins from our food. Avocados are high in fat, for example, but it is ‘good’ fat, omega 3 fatty acids, and they are also packed with other nutrients making them a great healthy food choice. Same goes for vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, and oily fish. I basically live on peanut butter. My favourite pastime is shown below…
So, let’s look a little closer at a few staples that may find their way into lots of shopping trolleys across the UK every weekend. What impression do we have of the product, from how it is marketed and packaged, and what is actually hiding in there, in plain sight?
Firstly, cereal, especially that targeted at children. A stroll along the cereal aisle in any supermarket is a colourful experience – boxes are bright and cheerful, there are cute characters on display, often donning sports kits, making a subtle link between sport and eating cereal. I’m not too sure that Jessica Ennis-Hill got where she is by eating Frosties for breakfast every day! So, what’s Tony the tiger really putting into his bowl at breakfast time, and is it Ggggreat? A 30g serving of Frosties (which is tiny, by the way – think those mini sized boxes) contains a whopping 11g of sugar – that’s just over 2 teaspoons. So basically, Frosties are more than 30% sugar! I know most kids would easily eat a double sized serving, or more, given half the chance, so they could be eating more than the maximum recommended sugar intake for a day (19g) before they’ve even left the house. Not a great way to start their day at all.
I’m not too sure that Jessica Ennis-Hill got where she is by eating Frosties for breakfast every day!
But most people wouldn’t class Frosties as a healthy choice for breakfast – it’s obvious that they are very sweet, just by looking at the picture on the front, all glistening flakes of corn. How about Crunchy nut cornflakes? (11g of sugar per serving again), Coco pops? (11g too). OK, Fruit & fibre? (10g), All bran (8g), Muesli (9g). Hhhmmm, but they are marketed by the food manufacturers as healthy choices! And breakfast cereal bars, great for crazy busy mornings or after school snacks, are similarly sugary. Kelloggs Nutri Grain Elevenses bars contain an enormous 19g of sugar, making their Coco Pops cereal bar seem more reasonable with 8.5g of sugar – but that’s still not far off 2 teaspoons.
There are some cereals which are much lower in sugar. Rice Krispies ‘only’ contain 3g of sugar per 30g serving, and Corn Flakes 2.5g. Plain old porridge oats, just the basic unprocessed ones have zero sugar, as a comparison, but they are hardly screaming out at consumers and their kids begging to be purchased. If you are a porridge fan, or even if you aren’t, why not try my sweet potato and carrot porridge recipe here. Its good enough to convert any porridge haters into lovers, trust me. And your dentist will thank you.
Yoghurt is another example of a food that is generally thought of as healthy, but where there’s a wide range of sugar and fat content. One of the market leading brands, Danone Activia, has 4g of fat and an eye watering 16g of sugar per little pot. Their well advertised 0% fat variety still has more than 10g of sugar per pot. Hardly a dieter’s ideal snack! There are plenty of varieties, including better value own brands, which have no added sugar, and contain just the natural sugars found in milk, but you do need to read labels to search them out which isn’t always an option for busy consumers. With yoghurt, having just the one ingredient (milk), is the only way to avoid added nasties, and sweetening with fresh fruit should make it that bit more attractive to fussy kids.
Kids yoghurts are pretty bad on the sugar front too. Petit Filous fromage frais have a teaspoon of sugar per tiny pot, with the recommended serving size being 2 tiny pots, hence 2 teaspoons of sugar. These are marketed as being suitable for very young children and babies and as a great first food when weaning, so it would be easy to assume that they are a healthy and nutritious option. In fact their packaging proudly states that there are no artificial sweeteners, which is true, because they’ve just added sugar instead. And we wonder why child obesity is on the rise in the UK…
And we wonder why child obesity is on the rise in the UK…
Baked beans are a staple in most households and we certainly get through our fair share in this house. High in protein, and boasting on the tins that a serving counts as one of your 5 portions of fruit and vegetables for the day, baked beans are considered to be a good, quick, easy and filling tea for lots of families. But again, that tasty tomato sauce is hiding sugar and salt a-plenty. Most varieties are very low in fat, but each half can contains over 10g of sugar and nearly 1.5 grams of salt. No added sugar varieties are available, which contain between 1/3 and 2/3 of the sugar of the original varieties, so these are a better choice, but may not be available in smaller supermarkets and are, of course, more expensive than the regular version.
Just by eating these three staple foods in a day; a (small) bowl of cereal at breakfast time, a yoghurt mid-morning and beans on toast for lunch, it’s easy to have racked up 30g of sugar by lunchtime without even realising it. And most people would consider those foods to be not particularly ‘bad’ choices health wise, and for sure there’s waaaaaay worse things that people could be eating!
Added sugars are well hidden in everyday foods, and may not be listed as sugar on the ingredients labels, making it even more difficult to track them down and avoid them. Other names for sugar include: glucose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, honey, hydrolysed starch, invert sugar, fructose and molasses. These food manufacturers like to make it difficult for us, don’t they?!
Another important consideration when making choices in the supermarket is the budget you have for your weekly shop. We hear regularly in the news that food prices are rising faster than wages, meaning that family budgets are constantly being squeezed. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/10/prices-oxo-bisto-mr-kipling-pound-brexit-premier-foods And if it’s a case of the family being fed on cheaper, yet perhaps less nutrient dense food, and still having some money left over for gas and electric that week, for example, or eating more expensive but more nutritionally sound food and going cold in the winter, then obviously the cheaper food is the only sensible choice. Fed is best, after all.
I volunteer at a food bank every week, and constantly meet families and single people who have to make these decisions on a daily basis, and it makes me angry. No scrap that, it makes me bloody furious, that in 2017, in my home city, there are kids who go to bed hungry every night. Often through no fault of their parents (the majority of our ‘guests’ are Sheffield folk on zero hours contracts with shitty employers, or those who are subject to benefit cuts or sanctions down to changes in entitlement, such as no longer being disabled enough (!) to claim disability benefits, trafficked and pregnant young women, those fleeing domestic violence, refugees, asylum seekers, and those who have had a string of bad luck and are down on their arses) our guests are referred to the food bank and receive a basic package of food to last them 3 or 4 days. I know it’s a whole other issue, and I’m getting a little side tracked, but if one thing sticks with you from reading this, then please let it be to buy an extra bag of porridge oats, some longlife milk or a few tins of soup every now and again and donate to your local food bank, which you can do at most supermarkets, really easily. The food bank where I volunteer is always looking for donations – more info here https://sheffields6.foodbank.org.uk/
In conclusion, I guess the only way to be sure of what you are eating is to scrutinise every food packet that you pick up until you find a variety that you are happy with. I remember a particularly dark day in my shopping history when I was trying to find some hummus with no added sugar in. It took a lot longer than I anticipated, because, again, you’d assume that hummus doesn’t have any added sugar, wouldn’t you? It is also important to remember that healthy, fresh, whole food doesn’t need to make a health claim because the goodness should be obvious. It’s there in the colours of the vegetables, the sweet scent of the fruits, the freshness of the meat or fish – I’m learning its best to be slightly sceptical of food packaging and that I need to read in detail exactly what’s in there before just lobbing it into my trolley.
If you are confused with what’s healthy and what’s not healthy, then the simplest thing is to just eat real food; fruit and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, and you won’t have to try to decipher the mixed messages. Anything that doesn’t come in a packet is pretty straightforward – fill up on that stuff as much as possible, and you won’t go far wrong!
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