We are busy! Most of us don’t want to spend our precious spare time interpreting nutrition panels in the supermarket. There are a lot of products out there to choose from and many of them claim that they are healthy. Yet we are often faced with fancy labels and a long list of marketing statements.
So what are some simple ways to know you are getting what you pay for?
1. Check the nutrition panel for added sugars
It’s always a good idea to check the nutrition panel to see how many grams of sugar is in the product. For instance, women are recommended no more that 25 grams of sugar per day. A healthy superfood snack bar can contain up to 10 grams of sugar, over a third of a woman's recommended sugar intake for the day. With natural sugars taking the place of refined sugar, you still need to be careful of excess sugar. Dates, honey, dried fruits and maple syrup, all raise your blood sugar and insulin levels the same way refined sugars do. Many are surprised that a teaspoon of honey is 20 grams of sugar. That’s nearly all of your recommended sugar for the day! Read the labels carefully and reduce sugar to stay disease-free and reduce weight gain.
2. Choose ‘certified organic’
Australia is one of the top producers of organic crops, yet the vast majority of these get exported overseas. When choosing organic ensure that the certifying logo (i.e. ACO, USDA, EU) is on the packaging and that there is a number affiliated with the logo. This will ensure that the product is truly ‘certified organic’. To achieve certified organic status, a product must go through a series of steps to prove where each ingredient was sourced and how it was handled along the supply chain. These suppliers have to show documentation of where every ingredient originated and the conditions it was grown.
By choosing certified organic, you can be certain that everything in the product is safe and is not contaminated with potentially toxic ingredients.
3. How long is the ingredient list?
Have a careful look at the ingredient list. If the list is the length of your arm with a lot of long words that you've never seen before, it's safe to say that unhealthy ingredients may be in the product. Stick to ingredients you know as wholefoods, such as chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, lemon, in the case of packaged hummus. Products with the least amount of ingredients are always best.
Especially avoid anything with a number – 100's are colours that are not necessary, as they just make food look more appetizing. With certain artificial food colours being linked to childhood behavior disorders, we should always question why a colour has been addedi. Artificial sweeteners are hidden in the 900 range with sorbitol listed as 420. Flavour enhancers can be found in the 600 range and should be avoided as they have been linked to overeating, depression and fatigueii. All of these ingredients make food look and taste better but their impact on your body can be detrimentaliii.
4. Is it GMO-free?
Genetically modified (GM) food has been accused of causing cancer, destroying the environment and having increased health risks for our childreniv. While many people argue that it will help solve our food and population crisis, others are wondering about the long-term effects these ingredients will have on our health. If you are looking to discover what foods have GM ingredients, you can be certain that if a product is certified organic it will also be GMO-free. Even if you are not choosing certified organic foods, ensure that the product contains no genetically modified organisms by looking for a GMO-Free label. You should also choose whole foods over processed foods that are more likely to contain GMO ingredients.
In Australia we have limited GM crops at the moment. All of our domestic fruit and vegetables are GM free and hopefully it stays this way. Common GM foods approved for growth in Australia include corn, soybean, canola, cotton, alfalfa, potato, sugarbeet, wheat and ricev. However, at this point in late 2017, only cotton and canola are approved for commercial use. So chances are if you are consuming anything fried, it is likely cooked in GM canola or cottonseed oil. It is also important to note that many ingredients that are used in cereals, pastas and processed foods originate overseas where they allow for more GM crops in commercial products. This is a key reason that we use the ‘country of origin’ label that is making its way onto shelves by mid-2018. Be aware that the ‘country of origin' regulation may only be required for small businesses, with large businesses being exempt. To be safe, choose local fruits and vegetables and certified organic products whenever possible.
5. Avoid sugar-free
When you have checked the label and it says ‘sugar-free’ and the nutrition label says zero grams of sugar, you would think that the product would be healthy. Be wary as this could indicate that the product is loaded with artificial sugars that have been linked to insulin resistance and surprisingly, added weight gainvi. Some common artificial sugars include sorbitol as number 420, xylitol, aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda) and saccharine (Sweet’n Low). These fake sugars can be hidden in yoghurt, salad dressings, frozen desserts, baked goods, breakfast cereals and anything that says lite or dietvii.
If you would like a healthy alternative, look for plant-based sweeteners such as stevia and natural monk fruit that do not raise blood sugar levels or contribute to obesity. Manufacturers whose mission is to create healthy products will ensure that their labels fulfil the above requirements. By educating yourself on what to avoid, you will clean up your diet and empower yourself to make healthier choices. Keep it simple by choosing whole foods and buying local organic produce, which will result in more energy, increased health and a more fulfilled lifestyle.
i. Bull N Y Acad Med, 1982
ii. Mercola, 2009
iii. Choice, 2014
iv. Centre for Science in the Public Interest, 2012
v. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, 2017
vi. Mercola, 2013
vii. Dr Josh Axe, 2015