Sometimes reading a food label can be like solving a riddle. With so many measurements, unheard of ingredients and random serving sizes, how can you know if something is healthy or not? We’ve teamed up with MD and Food Detective Dr Margo De Kooker to break it down for you.
How to view food
Before we dive into the details, let’s take a look at how we view food vs. how our bodies view food.
We may eat for pleasure, comfort, energy, nutrition and out of habit. Our bodies, however, see food as information to regulate our chemistry.
According to Dr Margo, if the body recognises that information (which happens when we eat naturally occurring foods), it can decipher and digest it more easily and use it to regulate our chemistry. If it doesn’t (which happens when we consume artificially and chemically created substances), then the body takes a lot more strain to digest it or can’t digest it at all and chemical processes might grind to a halt.
The good news is that wholesome food that is nutrient-dense or has the right ‘information’ can restore the body’s balance and sometimes reverse the damage done or heal ailments.
Pro tip: If something can stay on the shelf longer than it could in its natural form, it’s probably got additives you don’t want in your body. There are ways to can or preserve things with natural preservatives, but many products you find in boxes and packets and in the canned section of the supermarket do not use these.
The Nutritional Chart
So, let’s talk about the nutritional chart. You know, the one that’s obligatorily included on food labels and is suspiciously confusing. Take serving size, for instance. Who determines that size? Many serving sizes seem to be made for Smurfs and are way less than normal humans consume. When you are reading the values, rather look at the grams per 100 g/100 ml, not per serving size (which can be miniscule). After all, who only drinks half a can of soft drink!?
The Ingredients List
Along with the nutritional chart, you’ll see the ingredients list. While the nutritional chart is helpful with measurements, a lot of useful info is in the ingredients list. Ingredients have to be listed in order of descending weight. So, the first few things on the list will form the bulk of the product.
What you don’t want to see
The Dreaded E-Number
What is an E-number, you may ask? It basically indicates any substance that has no nutritional value but is used to preserve shelf life, or to fake food flavours or colours.
‘E-number’ comes from the European standard number that was given as a code for ingredients that had way too complex, chemical names. If you don’t see an E-number but you DO see a word that you either do not recognise or are in no way able to pronounce, then it will be the scientific name for the E-number.
Dr Margo notes, “If you don’t recognise an ingredient, your body won’t either.”
There are over 2000 E-numbers and 99% are not found naturally in food. E-numbers in the 100s are usually artificial colourants. E-numbers in the 600s are artificial flavourants. Basically, if you pick something up and look at the ingredients list and it has more than two E-numbers, put it down and back away.
Sugar, the Smiling Assassin
Ah, sugar. You sneaky temptress. Your first point of call here is to look at that ingredients list and if sugar is in the top three ingredients, we advise you to think twice before putting it in the trolley.
Of course, food manufacturers know this and some (not all) will divide the total sugar into all its variants so that you don’t realise how sugar-heavy a product is and it doesn’t have to appear in the first few ingredients. Watch out for an ingredients list with multiple types of sugars.
Here’s a handy table of the many names of sugar:
4 g = about 1 tsp of sugar. So, if something says 40 g of sugar in a 100 g portion, that is the equivalent of about 10 tsps of sugar!
Dr Margo notes, “When sugars come in the plant they originate from, there is generally some fibre, and there are generally additional nutrients. Processed or refined sugar has all the good stuff removed. This means it costs us to process refined sugars, whereas naturally occurring sugars give us more than they cost us.”
The fibre in naturally occurring sugars like those found in fruits decreases the digestion of the sugar and won’t spike your insulin as much. Processed, refined sugars will spike your insulin more, which turns on fat storage. Dr Margo warns, “Beware of fruit juice where all the fibre has been removed.” If you see sugar in the Nutritional Chart but there is no sugar in the ingredients, that sugar is the natural sugar occurring in foods.
Now, let’s focus on carbohydrates. All carbohydrates are broken down into a type of sugar called glucose. Not all carbohydrates are created equal, though. Dr Margo explains, “If a carbohydrate is highly refined and lacking in natural fibre, it behaves much like a refined sugar.”
When to ask: am I eating too much sugar?
It’s simple. If you feel the need to eat every 1.5 hours because of hunger, then you are probably eating too much sugar or too many refined carbs. If you eat a small amount compared to other people but are still gaining weight, you’re likely eating too much sugar.
Sodium – that salty sea-dog
There is debate about how much sodium the body needs. It is estimated that 75% of our sodium intake comes from processed foods, as many E-numbers are sodium-based. Dr Margo advises to cut out the E-numbers and use a good quality crystal salt.
What you do want to see
Dietary fibre is what keeps your gut healthy and functioning well and the recommended daily intake is 25-30 g. If a product has 3 g or more of dietary fibre per 100 g, it has meaningful fibre that will have a positive effect on the body. High fibre is considered to be 4.8-6 g of fibre per 100 g.
For vegans, especially, protein content is important as you don’t have meat protein to give you your necessary amino acids. Only some vegan proteins are complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. It’s okay to buy an incomplete protein, but be sure to top up your intake with nuts, seeds and berries. Soy, edamame, amaranth, quinoa, hemp seed, chia, and quinoa are complete proteins.
Vitamins and minerals
Many people suffer from deficiencies in Vitamins D, K2 and B12, Magnesium and Iron without knowing it. It’s estimated that 50% of the population is iron deficient, and you don’t need to be anaemic to have an iron deficiency.
On a food label, if you see added vitamins and minerals, these will be in the cheapest and least absorbable forms of them. Also, if a product needs added vitamins and minerals to be sold as a food, what does that say about the nutrient density of the product?
Ideally, avoid anything with trans fats or hydrogenated oils. Cold-pressed oils are preferred and watch out for ‘vegetable oils’ as that could mean oils from anything!
Getting lost in translation – terminology
Marketing can be deceptive. The goal is to make you buy, so when you see ‘low fat’, ‘fat free’, ‘no added sugar’, you think, YES! Unfortunately, no. Products have to undergo additional processing to take out the fat and then often have added sugar to make them more palatable.
Here’s a translation of misleading sales claims:
What this means for vegan food options
People often associate veganism with healthy eating, but an Oreo is vegan and it is far from healthy.
The most important thing to ask yourself about any food you put down your gullet is, “Does what I’m eating come with nutrients?” Nutrient-dense food comes from whole foods, fresh fruit and veg and anything with little to no processing.
If you’re asking why you crave choccy biccies more than apples, it’s because processed foods are pumped with flavour enhancers that overstimulate your taste buds and make you want to eat more. They also don’t contain the nutrients your body needs, so it will keep stimulating you to eat until you get those necessary nutrients.
We hope you now understand food labels a bit better so that next time you are in the supermarket, you can go into Sherlock Holmes mode and get to the bottom of what you are eating.
If you are in the Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha area, Dr Margo offers Grocery Tours to give you an in-depth look into how to shop for your health. These are held at Waterfront Superspar, are free of charge and bookings can be made through Dr Margo (firstname.lastname@example.org). It’s a 90-minute experience where you can ask questions and learn about shopping for your health. A virtual Grocery Tour experience is also coming soon.