In today’s world, it can be hard to distinguish between fact and fiction when it comes to food. Everywhere you turn, you’re bombarded with claims about the healthiness of certain foods and the dangers of others. But are these claims really true?
It can be difficult to know what to believe, especially when the information is printed right there on the food packaging. But remember, there are whole teams of people with the task of coming up with clever marketing tactics to enhance how healthy food items look when on the shelf.
Nutrition information: fact
The nutrition information panel and the ingredients list are mandatory items on most packaged foods and are regulated by the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).
The nutrition information panel on a food label offers the simplest and easiest way to compare foods in similar categories. For example, if you’re looking for the healthiest granola, choose the one with less saturated fat, salt (sodium), added sugars and kilojoules, and more fibre.
The panel can also be used to quickly decide how large one serve of a food group choice or discretionary food would be and whether it’s worth the kilojoules. This is particularly important if you are trying to lose weight.
By law, nutrient claims that appear on food packaging need to meet the definitions outlined in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
Read: Four nutrition myths you need to stop believing
Voluntary statements: (mostly) fiction
Food manufacturers often use nutrition claims such as ‘light’, ’97 per cent fat free’, ‘reduced salt,’ and ‘source of fibre’ to attract shoppers. They usually highlight the favourable aspects of the food product and draw your attention away from their least desirable aspects, so it’s important to be cautious when reading them.
Here are some of the most common nutrition claims you’ll see on food labels and what they can mean for your health.
Reduced salt or no added salt
If a food product is labelled as ‘reduced salt’, this means that the amount of salt in the product has been reduced by at least 25 per cent. However, it’s important to check the sodium content on the nutrition information panel, as these products may still contain higher than recommended levels of sodium.
‘No added salt’ means that no salt has been added to the product during manufacturing, but it’s still possible for the product to contain naturally occurring sodium.
The National Diabetes Australia dietitians recommend choosing foods with no more than 400mg sodium per 100g. The best choices contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g.
Reduced fat or low fat
Reduced fat and low-fat claims on food and drink products typically indicate that the product contains 25 per cent less fat than the standard product, or less than 1.5g of fat per 100ml for drinks and 3g of fat per 100g for foods.
However, these products often contain extra salt and added sugar to make up for the reduced fat content. When choosing between products with reduced fat or low fat claims, it is recommended to check the total and saturated fat content on the nutrition information panel.
Choose products that contain less than 5g total fat per 100g or 5–10g total fat per 100g if the saturated fat is less than a third of the total fat.
Read: Low fat or full cream milk?
No added sugar
The claim ‘no added sugar’ on a food product means that no sugars, honey, malt, or concentrated fruit juice have been added to the product. However, the product may still contain natural sugars or be high in total carbohydrate content.
When considering whether or not to purchase a food product with this claim, take into account the nutritional quality of the whole food and the total carbohydrate per serving. Does the food product offer other nutrients of value, such as fibre or calcium? Or is it something you could do without?
This means that the product contains at least 40 per cent less energy than the same quantity of a similar product. It is likely sweetened with an artificial sweetener, which can help you reduce your overall energy intake if you are trying to lose weight.
Low or no cholesterol
‘Cholesterol free’ products contain no cholesterol, but can still be high in other types of fat and kilojoules. ‘Low cholesterol’ products contain no more than 10mg per 100ml for drinks and no more than 20mg per 100g for foods.
Cholesterol is produced in the liver and is only found in foods that contain animal products. So, any ‘cholesterol free’ claims on plant-based products are misleading and simply a marketing ploy.
If you want to reduce your cholesterol levels through diet, focus on reducing saturated fat and increasing your fibre intake.
Baked, not fried
The term ‘baked not fried’ on a food label means that the product was oven-baked instead of fried. This is generally healthier than fried foods, as baking uses less fat. However, it’s important to check the fat content on the nutrition information panel, as some baked goods can still be very high in fat.
These claims are often seen on foods such as crackers, chips or toasted muesli. It’s recommended to eat these products occasionally and in small amounts.
Read: Nutritionists reveal their pantry staples
When a product is labelled ‘light’, it means that it has a reduced fat content. However, this term can also describe the taste, texture, or colour of a product, such as cooking oil.
To determine if a product labelled ‘light’ is healthier for you, compare the total and saturated fat content per 100g to a similar product that is not labelled as such. If the numbers are similar, then the ‘light’ product is not offering any added benefit to your health.
Overall, it’s important to be aware of the potential health risks associated with certain foods and to be mindful of the claims made about them.
Do you check the nutrition panel on foods when grocery shopping? What do you look out for? Let us know in the comments section below.