While food labels appear to provide more information than ever, the truth is there's more than meets the eye. We decode the jargon, look at the worst offenders and dispel some myths.
The truth behind food labels
Next time you toss a bag of reduced-fat crisps into your trolley, grab a packet of low-sugar fruit yogurts or happily note that the brand of pasta you're about to buy is cholesterol free, it's worth stopping for a second to consider that those products might not be as virtuous as they seem. In fact, they may well be offering deliberately misleading information or failing to deliver on their promises.
Once you come to realise that low fat isn't always best, that nine times out of 10 a bowl of cereal doesn't provide a particularly nutritious start to the day and that, contrary to its positive connotations, the word "enhanced" should be avoided when it comes to foodstuffs (view it as a synonym for processed), this introduces a whole host of concerns.
Sarah Queen, the consultant director of Nutrition Matters Arabia in Abu Dhabi, has more than 19 years' experience working as both a corporate and personal nutritionist. She stresses that when food shopping, we need to have our wits about us.
"The first things you need to be aware of is that the manufacturer wants you to buy their product and so clever marketing and use of words are often used to make the food sound a lot healthier than it actually is."
Queen cites products advertised as low in cholesterol and therefore appearing healthy, when they are actually high in saturated and trans fat (both of which are linked to heart disease), low-fat items, which may have had the fat content reduced only to be replaced with sugar or artificial sweeteners and products that claim to have no added sugar (sucrose) but actually contain extra fruit juice concentrate (fructose), as prime examples here.
"Never trust the claim made on the front; it's a marketing pitch designed to make the product appear healthier," says Bernadette Abraham, a certified fitness instructor and ex-competitive athlete. She adds that loopholes in regulations mean that customers are not getting the full picture. "Often, you'll find that serving sizes have been manipulated by manufacturers. If a product contains less than half a gram of sugar or fat per serving, it can be labelled as fat or sugar free. But these serving sizes are unrealistically small, meaning that a normal-size portion will contain fat and/or sugar, contrary to the claims of the front."
Hala Barghout, a licensed clinical dietitian who currently works at Platform 3 gym in Dubai, also believes there is a real need for greater transparency in this area. "It frequently appears that the manufacturer is trying to hide the ingredients in packaged foods," she tells me. "They make it difficult to find the ingredients on the label and the information is often hidden under a flap of packaging material in very tiny print. But the harder the ingredients are to find and read, usually, the more important it is that you read them." This difficulty in unearthing important information is a particularly pertinent issue for expatriates, as large stickers listing ingredients in Arabic often obscure nutritional labels, ingredient lists or cooking methods.
When looking at food labels, your starting point should be establishing the serving size, as all other information - from the calorie count to the fibre content - is relative to this number. Barghout warns that even this can be confusing. "Sometimes a serving size will be way less than you're used to eating, like only half a cup of cereal. Even things that seem like they'd be a single serving, such as a bottle of juice or packet of chips, may contain more than one serving. If you eat or drink the whole thing, you're getting more vitamins and minerals but you're also getting way more calories, sugar, fat and other stuff you might not want." Once you've established the serving size, this information needs to be cross-referenced with the nutritional panel, paying particular attention to the calorie count, total and saturated fat content and the amount of sugar and salt. It is generally regarded that food that contains 3g of fat per 100g is low fat, whereas 20g per 100g is a lot. If a product has 5g or less sugar per 100g it is low in sugar; if it contains 15g per 100g it should be considered a high-sugar item. A product that contains more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (0.6g sodium) is high in salt, whereas 0.3g of salt per 100g (0.1g sodium) would be considered low.
After that, it's time to look at the list of ingredients. All four experts say the ingredients to look out for and shy away from include hydrogenated fats, vegetable oils, palm oil, salt, artificial sweeteners and flavourings, bleached white flour and high fructose corn syrup. They add that when it comes to sugar, we need to be aware of synonyms: anything that ends in 'ose' (glucose, sucrose, fructose) as well as honey, syrup and fruit juice concentrate.
Abraham and Barghout, meanwhile, point out that it is important to remember that ingredients are listed according to their prevalence, meaning that the ingredient listed first will appear in the greatest quantity. Abraham says that as a rule of thumb, if sugar or one of its synonyms appears in the first three ingredients, the item should be avoided.
The worst offenders are crisps, chocolate, sugary drinks and cakes. It is the more innocuous-sounding products, such as cereals and cereal bars, flavoured yogurts, canned or packaged soups, cheese and cracker snacks aimed at children and fruit juices, that can catch people unawares. The recipes here provide a simple way of preparing two items that can be unnecessarily high in fat, calories, salt, sugar or all of the above when bought ready-made.