Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Hey Health Seekers! I am about to burst some labeling myths with this post. It still boggles my mind that people struggle with this, but reading food labels has become a hot topic and a confusing one at that. I'm often sent quick snaps of nutrition and food labels by clients who ask, "...can I eat this?" The answer is often, not recommended.
Where did all this confusion start? Well, we have been led to believe by health organizations, and even food manufacturers, that the word "natural" means a particular food item is healthy and good for us. You probably believe this yourself, am I right? However, viruses and other debilitating, even deadly, microorganisms are natural. But that does not make them good for us. So what does "natural" on a food packet really mean anyway?
Natural Is Good Marketing
If you see the word natural on a food label, is that good news? Well, it got that box or packet off the shelf and into your hand. And this is just it, if we see natural splashed across the box, we are more likely to pick it up, aren't we? There are not too many food manufacturers that would put the term "unnatural" on their foods. So, natural is good marketing and comes in many forms such as:
made with real juice
protein fortified, calcium fortified etc
no added sugars
multigrain or made with whole grains
If Labeling Seems Confusing, You Are Not Alone
These are a few of the common claims we all often look for when buying food. We want all the good stuff, but many times we are being duped. A recent survey of 1,000 shoppers conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center (USA) revealed that 60% of the survey takers actively searched out the term "natural" on food labels. Of those polled, 66% expressed a belief that the term natural means food with no artificial ingredients, GMO (genetically modified organisms) or pesticides. But surprisingly, none of those requirements are mandatory for a food to carry the natural designation.
With no hard and fast rules as to exactly what "natural" means, this adjective can be trusted too much as it applies to food. So what is a health conscious mama supposed to do to find out if the food you are considering buying is actually "natural" or not?
Well, your first move should be to drop that "all natural" box of cereal and run, not walk to the produce aisle. But I realise not everyone is a raw foodie like me, nor do they want to be. So when in doubt, I recommend that you contact the manufacturer. It may take some time, but get someone on the phone. Ask some hard questions. If a representative for a food manufacturer or processor tells you that information is "proprietary" and cannot be revealed, alarm bells should go off. Record the name of the individual you are talking to, and ask for any and all relevant information to be sent to you via snail mail or e-mail. In this day and digital age, you'd be surprised how far your questions will get you. Take back your consumer power!
When it comes to pre-packaged foods, you really almost always have to assume there has been some kind of fillers, additives, emulsifiers, preservatives or other alterations made to make that food stuff withstand time on the shelf. If it has been processed, even if it says "all natural", I'd be cautious.
Think about it for a moment. If you baked muffins from scratch like your grandmother did, they would not last a week on the shelf. Sweet and savory homemade sauces would go rancid, biscuits would go stale. These products while they are massive time savers for us, require sugar, sodium and other preservatives to give them a long shelf life. An apple has a shelf life too, but it requires very little tampering to get it from farm to shelf. In fact, when was the last time you saw an apple with a nutrition label?
Unless you count the coat of polish, most produce is picked, transported and sold. There is no processing. No sugar added. No vitamin fortified ingredients. No additives. No label required. This doesn't mean you should just only eat fruit and veggies (although your body will love you for it), it just means you need to get smarter with foods that have labels.
Here's my best tips to keep it simple:
In case you weren't aware, all ingredients are typically listed in decreasing order by weight. This means that the one first listed is the major ingredient and the last ingredient is the least. So if sugars, salt or fat are one of the first three ingredients on the list, the product may not be a healthy choice. By the way, watch out for these no-no's under sneaky different names.
Other Names For Sugar
Agave nectar, barley malt, brown rice syrup, caramel, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose sucrose, ethyl maltol, fructose, juice concentrate, glucose, lactose, malt extract, maltodextrin, maltose, molasses, raw cane sugar, sucrose.
Other Names For Salt
Sodium, rock salt, onion salt, celery or garlic salt, vegetable salt, MSG, yeast extracts, booster, stock, baking soda, sodium bicarbonate.
Other Names For Fat
Canola, corn oil, diglycerides, grapeseed, partially hydrogenated oil, margarine, milk solids, monoglycerides, palm oil, rice bran oil, safflower, sunflower, shortening, vegetable oil.
If the package has ingredients you cannot pronounce, avoid it.
Always look for ingredients you recognise and as few a possible. A cake your grandmother made really on contained flour, butter, eggs, milk, sugar, baking powder and a drop of vanilla. If there is huge list of emulsifiers, thickeners, or additives listed as numbers such as E401, E402, E403 etc, consider making your own from scratch.
Look at the fibre content versus carbohydrate.
If you are trying to lose weight, this is a biggie. Fibre is the indigestible parts of plants and is essential to good gut health. If you have ever counted carbs, you will remember that to get the net carb count of a food item, you subtract the grams of fibre from the carbohydrates. A wholemeal wrap for instance that says 30g carbs on the label, yet contains 6g of fibre would actually be closer to 24g of net carbs. The lower the carbs and higher the fibre the better. This is helpful when shopping for wraps, bread, biscuits and other grain products.
Make it yourself at home
I know for busy mums, the last thing you have time for is a bake-a-thon, but if your health is important, find time. With chef Google you can find so many health recipes sites within seconds and make your own version of your family's store favourites. Here, visit my dear friend's foodie blog and start here.
The bottom line when to comes to food labels? Natural isn't always what it seems. And until the industry ups the regulations, it is best to avoid packaged foods wherever possible. Instead, eat whole foods, and more fruits and vegetables than processed food items. That way will automatically enjoy more truly natural and healthy foods.
Have you been struggling with your weight? Confused with all the conflicting information out there? Click here.