SOME foods, like apples, carrots or potatoes, don’t need much introduction. There’s no packaging to explain it, but you can be pretty sure that there’s nothing added. But pre-packaged foods are a different matter.
The picture may be pretty, the marketing clever, but how do you know what you’re buying is good for you?
South Africa’s Heart and Stroke Foundation (HSF) has suggestions for what to look for because being a little savvy about food labels can help your health immensely.
By law, South African foods now have to conform to strict labelling regulations, which have clamped down on often misleading claims and created a standard way of conveying information to the consumer to ensure fair comparison between products.
The label has to clearly state if any allergens are present and “no sugar added” is no longer allowed on foods that contain any kind of sugar.
However, despite all this, food labels can still be confusing, especially if you are trying to eat healthily. The HSF recommends that you look out for:
ýPortion control – when you are reading a label, you can find out how many portions are in the product.
For instance, an orange juice carton may contain 520 kilojoules per serving, but if the serving is only 240ml and you pour a 480ml glass, then you will take in well over 1000 kilojoules from juice alone, which is as many kilojoules as you’d find in a chocolate bar.
ýNot all fats are created equal – the saturated and trans fats are the baddies.
Look for foods that have lower levels of saturated fat and cholesterol and try to avoid trans fats altogether, such as products that have the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the ingredients list. Foods with healthy unsaturated oils, such as olive, canola or sunflower, are better for you.
ýSecret salt – salt creeps into many products where you wouldn’t expect it. Take a look at the ingredients list – if “salt” or “sodium” appears in the first few ingredients, there’s a good chance that the product is going to contain a lot of salt.
Compare like for like by looking at sodium content per 100g. If the food has more than 600mg of sodium per 100g then that is a high sodium amount, and should be avoided.
Choose items where the sodium content is less than 120mg per 100g. Also consider the low-sodium or unsalted versions.
ýFantastic fibre – it lowers your blood sugar, fights cholesterol and can help you to lose weight. But most of us don’t get enough of it. Look out for foods that have 3g or more of fibre per 100g.
ýSay no to the sweet stuff – we all know that too much sugar can be the enemy of a healthy diet, filling you up on empty calories and causing your blood sugar level to fluctuate.
But did you know that sugar comes in many shapes and forms? Ingredients high in sugar include: honey, molasses, corn syrup, corn sugar, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, corn sweetener, dextrose, maltose, fruit juice concentrate and glucose.
Finally, if you’re short of time, just look for the Heart Mark on products, which guarantees fats, cholesterol, fibre, sodium and sugar are checked to ensure they meet the HSF’s strict nutritional criteria.