If we all ate the perfect diet, packaged foods simply wouldn’t exist – there would be no call for them. However, we don’t and they do. There can actually be very few people in the western world who do not eat some form of packaged food. How many of us though, have any idea of what’s in that packet, box or tin?
For those of us who don’t, and would like too, the authorities now compel food companies to list the ingredients, and also some nutritional information, on a label somewhere on the product’s packaging. This is invariably placed at the rear or side. That leaves the front clear for the manufacturer’s marketing spiel.
The nutrition information label shows the amount of calories, fat, sugar, salt, protein and carbohydrates. This is straightforward and so we won’t dwell on it. However, we will mention the calorie and sugar counts.
Specified first on the label is the food’s calorie count. For millions of overweight people this is probably the most important figure to be aware of. If this includes you, you may be interested to know that the current recommended daily calorie intake is 2,200 – 2,500 calories for men and 1,800 – 2,200 for women.
By using the nutrition info, you can keep your calorie intake within these limits. This should definitely help in preventing weight gain. The other value everyone should look at is the food’s sugar content – quite simply, the lower it is, the better.
The ingredients in a food are listed in order by their weight. So, in most cases, the first two or three ingredients constitute the bulk of it. The ingredients at the bottom of the list weigh the least and so are negligible.
A good tip is to put foods with a long list of ingredients back on the shelf – inevitably, these will contain many additives that you really shouldn’t be eating.
You should be aware the manufacturers try and hide the fact that a food contains sugar by the simple expedient of calling it something else. Names commonly used for this purpose include glucose, sucrose, dextrose, fructose, lactose, corn sweetener, sorbitol, high fructose corn syrup, sorghum and maltose. They may not sound it but these are all sugars!
It’s the same with salt. Commonly used names include monosodium glutamate, sodium nitrite, disodium phosphate and sodium benzoate. In fact, any ingredient with ‘sodium’ in its name is basically salt.
Another trick the food companies use is to try and convince us a product is more nutritious than it actually is. They do this by putting various health claims on the front of the packaging. Two common examples of this are ‘enriched flour’ and ‘fortified wheat flour’.
Anyone falling for this blurb would assume nutrients of some type have been added to the flour. And they’d be right – the company really has added some vitamins and minerals. Typically, these are calcium, iron, thiamine, niacin, vitamin D and riboflavin. But what they don’t tell you is that these are synthetic minerals and vitamins that have been created in a laboratory. The ‘nutrients’ are not a patch on the real thing, and several studies have shown our bodies struggle to even absorb them, never mind actually use them.
Finally, keep a sharp lookout for the presence of trans-fats – these will be listed as either ‘hydrogenated oil’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oil’. Trans-fats are bad news as we explain in more detail here. While the food manufacturers are gradually phasing out the use of these fats, they are still putting them in foods such as savory snacks (crackers, biscuits, etc), pies, pizza and margarine. They will be around for a long while yet.
Consumers in the USA should be aware that if a product contains less than one gram of trans-fats per serving, the manufacturer does not have to mention it on the ingredient list. While you may think that such a minute amount cannot possibly be dangerous, if it’s a food you eat every day, it can add up to a substantial amount over time. More examples of how the food companies use labels to misinform and deceive can be seen here.
If you have to eat processed food (and this is basically anything that comes in a can, box, tube, packet or protective wrapping), it’s very much in your interests to investigate the contents of that box. Take no notice of the advertizing on the front label – you’ll get nothing useful from that.
Instead, read the food information label at the back. Here, you will see what’s actually in the food. Remember though, you’ll have to read between the lines because the food companies hate having to give this information and use every trick in the book to obfuscate and deceive.