Saturday, August 01, 2009

Food labelling and other lies

Food manufacturers aren’t fools when it comes to marketing. They know that if they slap a healthy-sounding label on their product, most people will take it at face value. A large slice of the general population think that a product labelled gluten-free or 98% fat-free or organic or salt-reduced must be healthy. Or at least healthier than the product next to it without the reassuring label.

Understanding food labels takes a bit more effort than just reading the giant coloured sticker on the front of the package. A bag of jelly snakes that claims to be 98% fat free, and/or 100% natural is still a big bag of mostly sugar – not something that any of us needs to be eating on any kind of regular basis or in large amounts. Gluten free chocolate biscuits are no better than the regular kind, in terms of nutrient value. Their sole benefit is to those with coeliac disease – and like everybody else, they should be eating those things in moderation. They contain the same calories, the same amount of sugar and they’re a highly processed food.

There may be some benefits in eating organic foods as opposed to non-organic*, and less fat and salt will probably benefit most people. But if you don’t know what you’re eating overall in terms of macronutrients, good fats, vitamins and minerals and so on, you need to put in some groundwork. Getting that stuff right is far more important than swapping one or two products for substitutes that may well be full of artificial additives, or be higher in carbohydrate to make up for the lower fat content…or whatever.

Get some sane advice on what you should be aiming for in daily grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat, then log a few days’ worth of food (or pay a professional to do an analysis for you) and see how it compares. If you’re nowhere near your targets, it’s time to overhaul your shopping and eating habits.

I’m not about to dole out a heap of advice on how to eat well – there’s plenty of information around on the subject if you care enough to look. And it really can vary depending on your lifestyle, genetics, likes and dislikes and goals. Even I don't eat exactly the same way all the time, swapping and changing things in response to training changes, illness, boredom, or just my body being a bit stubborn. But if you stick to mostly unprocessed whole foods, you can’t go wrong.

And when you do buy a jar or a packet of something, turn it over, put your glasses on, and read the teeny-tiny print on the nutrition panel to find out exactly what you’re buying. You might be surprised.

* In my totally unqualified opinion, the benefits of organic food are mainly related to lack of pesticide residues and less impact on the planet due to less chemicals sprayed around. Also possibly more sustainable farming practices, although I don't know the stats on that. There is negligible difference in terms of macro- or micronutrient values, according to a recent study.

Still, less toxins ingested has to be a good thing. I'd buy all organic food if only I didn't have to also pay a mortgage and put three kids through school.... Yeah, pity about the price tag.

1 comment:

Raechelle said...

Great post!
And Yeah-it sucks that organic is so expensive....
and it's completely ridiculous that people have to bring a damn magnifying glass to read those labels-frankly it's BS! That should have to be in big bold print on the front if you ask me. I'm not big on packaged foods to begin with-but think about someone who's 90....still doing their own shopping but not in the mood much for actually prepping meals-so they by more of the packaged stuff-to have to read and deciper what that all means is a bloody chore!
Oops, sorry- a bit of a rant...guess my coffee finally kicked in LOL!

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