Learning the language of food labels is an art and science these days. Yet understanding the basics (along with a discerning nature) is vital if you really want to know what’s in the foods you eat.
Although food labelling is strictly governed, labelling terms are still open to much misinterpretation and confusion, so I’m here
to help you navigate your way through food label terms, facts and figures, and understand what’s really behind the marketing blurb manufacturers use to entice you to buy their products.
Some common labelling terms…
Natural or Made from Natural Ingredients
The term “natural” can only be applied to foods that occur in nature and haven’t been processed or interfered with and don’t contain any chemical preservatives, artificial flavourings, colours or other ingredients. Having said that, manufacturers can process natural foods or ingredients, by cooking, dehydrating or washing to make a food fit or more suitable for consumption. There are companies however that use this term misleadingly, so do beware, and read the ingredients list.
Similarly, “pure” should only be used on single foods to which nothing has been added. However both “pure” and “natural” are terms that aren’t governed by legislation so read the ingredients list to make sure you know what you are buying.
For a food to be labelled “homemade”, it must have been produced in a domestic kitchen as opposed to a factory. This doesn’t however imply that the food is healthy! Once again, read the ingredients list!
The term “fresh” means that a food is not, or hasn’t been frozen or smoked. It should also mean that the food has been placed on sale for only a short period of time, after production.
Beware of this term, as it actually means very little. In addition, it bears no link to animal welfare.
No added sugar or unsweetened
First of all, don’t assume that a “no added sugar” item or an “unsweetened” item is low, or free of sugar. Both these terms simply refer to any additional sugars or sweeteners that may have been added. “No added sugar” means no additional sugar has been added. Remember sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit (which is healthy by the way!), fruit juices and milk products. Natural sugars are often “demonised” by the media and likened to refined sugar. Natural sugars are NOT like refined sugars and when they are naturally present in foods such as fresh or dried fruit, or raw food bars like Nakd bars - amongst the beneficial fibres and array of nutrients that help metabolise sugar - they are a healthy part of the diet.
Light or 'lite'
To label a food “light” is must be at least 30% lower in either calories, fat or sugar than the original item. The label must also state exactly what has been reduced and by how much. As with many food labelling terms, do not assume that “light” means low calorie, low sugar or low fat. It just means it contains slightly less than the standard product.
To call a food “low fat” it must contain no more than 3g fat per 100g. For liquids to be labelled “low fat” they must contain no more than 1.5g fat per 100ml.
Reduced fat can only be used on a label if the food contains 25% less fat than its original counterpart. However, reduced fat does not mean “low-fat”! A reduced fat cheese for example could be as much as 40% fat, so be careful!
So there you have it! A few other quick tips:
- Eat as close to nature as possible - In other words, choose foods that have been plucked from the ground, a plant or a tree!
- When choosing foods that are wrapped in packaging, ensure they contain as few ingredients as possible. Most pre-packed food products have a list of ingredients on the packaging. Go here first and foremost, as this can give you a good idea of how healthy or “natural” a product is.
- Ingredients are listed in order of weight, so the main elemtents in the food will be listed first. If, for example, the first few items are sugar, glucose or any other “ose”, you know the food is a high sugar food. Conversely, if the first ingredients are oil, cream or butter it is probably going to be a food that is high in fat….
So hopefully you’re now a little bit wiser about all the language you see on your food labels. Want a real-life example? Check out the ingredients list on our Nakd Cashew Cookie and see for yourself how simple things can be.
Keep your eyes peeled for the 2nd part of “Understanding Food Labels” when I’ll look at the facts and figures we are confronted with when buying food.