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Blogs by Nutritionists

Decoding Food Labels: How to Spot Deceptive Marketing

by True Elements 11 Jun 2024
An image of a soothing cup of spearmint tea

In our quest to eat healthier, many of us turn to food labels for guidance. However, the food industry often uses deceptive marketing tactics to make their products appear healthier than they actually are. Understanding how to read and interpret food labels can help you make more informed choices. Here’s a comprehensive guide to decoding food labels and spotting deceptive marketing.

Decoding Food Labels 

1. Understanding the Basics

Before diving into deceptive marketing tactics, it's important to understand the basic components of a food label. In the UK, a food label typically includes:

Ingredients List: A list of all the ingredients in the product, listed in descending order by weight.

Nutritional Information: Details about the energy (calories), fat, saturates, carbohydrate, sugars, protein, and salt content per 100g or per portion.

Reference Intakes (RIs): Guidelines about the daily amount of nutrients an average adult should consume.

Allergen Information: Details of any of the 14 major allergens contained in the product.

Storage Instructions: Guidance on how to store the product to maintain its quality and safety.

Date Marking: Either a "use by" date for safety or a "best before" date for quality.

2. Misleading Claims and Buzzwords

Food manufacturers often use specific terms to make their products seem healthier. Here are some common examples:

Natural" or "All-Natural": These terms suggest that the product is minimally processed and free from artificial ingredients. However, there is no strict regulation on these terms, so they can be used loosely. A product labeled "natural" can still contain preservatives or high amounts of sugar and fat.

“Organic": While organic products must meet certain standards, it doesn’t automatically mean they are healthy. Organic foods can still be high in sugar, fat, or salt. Always check the nutritional information.

"Low-Fat" or "Reduced-Fat": These products may indeed have less fat, but they often contain added sugar or artificial ingredients to improve taste. A reduced-fat product can still be high in calories.

"Sugar-Free" or "No Added Sugar": Sugar-free products might contain artificial sweeteners, and "no added sugar" doesn’t mean the product is low in natural sugars. These products can still be high in calories and other unhealthy components.

"Light" or "Lite": These terms are often used for products with reduced fat, sugar, or calories. However, the reduction might be minimal, and these products can still be unhealthy.

"Gluten-Free": While essential for those with coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten-free products can be just as high in sugar, fat, and calories as their gluten-containing counterparts.

An image of a soothing cup of spearmint tea

3. Health Halos

A "health halo" is when a single health claim (like “low fat”) makes you perceive the entire product as healthy. For example, a low-fat yoghurt may be high in sugar. Always read the full nutritional information to get a complete picture.

4. Portion Sizes

Manufacturers often manipulate portion sizes to make their products appear healthier. For example, a small portion size might be used to show lower calorie, sugar, or fat content, but realistically, people often consume more than the suggested portion. Always check the portion size and consider how much you will actually eat.

Example: A package of crisps may list nutritional information for a 30g serving, but the entire bag could contain 90g. If you eat the whole bag, you’ll need to multiply the nutritional values by three.

5. Hidden Sugars

Sugar can be listed under many different names, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, and corn syrup. Manufacturers might use multiple types of sugars to avoid listing "sugar" as the first ingredient. Be aware of these alternative names and check the overall sugar content in the nutritional information.

Common names for sugar include:

- High fructose corn syrup

- Agave nectar

- Cane juice

- Dextrose

- Maltodextrin

Example: A granola bar might be marketed as healthy but could contain several types of sugar such as honey, brown rice syrup, and molasses.

6. Additives and Preservatives

Many processed foods contain additives and preservatives to enhance flavour, texture, and shelf life. Some of these may be harmless, but others can have negative health effects. Common additives include:

Artificial Sweeteners: These can be found in "diet" or "sugar-free" products. Some studies suggest they may have negative health impacts, such as affecting gut health.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): Often used to enhance flavour, but some people may be sensitive to it, experiencing symptoms like headaches or nausea.

An image of a white ceramic cup filled with steaming spearmint tea, garnished with fresh spearmint leaves.

7. Allergen Information

By law, food labels must clearly state if they contain any of the 14 major allergens. These include nuts, dairy, eggs, gluten, and soy. If you have allergies or intolerances, always check this section carefully. Additionally, look for statements like "may contain traces of" if you are highly sensitive to certain allergens.

8. Ethical Claims

Labels like “Fairtrade”, “Free-range”, or “Sustainably Sourced” indicate certain ethical standards. While these labels often mean better practices, they don’t necessarily reflect the nutritional quality of the product.

Common ethical claims include:

Fairtrade: Ensures farmers and workers receive fair wages and work in safe conditions.

Free-range: Indicates animals had access to outdoor spaces.

Sustainably Sourced: Suggests the product was produced with minimal environmental impact.

9. Claims to Watch Out For

Here are some specific claims to be cautious of:

"Whole Grain": Just because a product contains whole grains doesn’t mean it’s high in them. Check the ingredients list to see how high whole grains are listed. The first ingredient should ideally be a whole grain.

"Fruit-Flavoured": Products labelled as fruit-flavoured often contain little to no real fruit and are instead flavoured with artificial additives.

"Free From": These products are often marketed as healthier, but "free from" does not always mean low in sugar, fat, or calories. For instance, a "gluten-free" cake can still be high in sugar and fat.

10. Practical Tips for Shopping

Plan Ahead: Make a list and plan your meals to avoid impulse buys.

Stick to the Perimeter: Fresh produce, meats, and dairy are usually located around the perimeter of the store. These items are generally less processed.

Read Labels Thoroughly: Take the time to read and compare labels, especially when trying new products.

Beware of Health Claims: Be sceptical of products that make bold health claims and always check the full label.

Example: Instead of buying a granola bar with health claims, consider buying plain oats and adding your own nuts and fruit.

11. Look for Hidden Fats

Just like sugars, fats can be hidden in various forms. Ingredients like palm oil, hydrogenated oils, and butter are all fats that can increase the calorie content of a product.

Example: A product labelled as "reduced-fat" cheese might still have significant amounts of fat, just slightly less than the full-fat version.

Understanding food labels can be challenging, but with some knowledge and practice, you can become more savvy and make healthier choices. Look beyond the marketing claims, check the nutritional information, and be aware of portion sizes and hidden ingredients. By doing so, you can navigate the supermarket aisles with confidence and ensure you’re getting the best foods for your health. Pay attention to the ingredient list, particularly for added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives. Also, consider the serving sizes, as they can often be misleading and make unhealthy foods appear better for you than they actually are. The order in which ingredients are listed can also provide insight, as items are listed by quantity, from highest to lowest. Additionally, familiarize yourself with common food label terms and what they really mean, such as “natural,” “organic,” and “light.” By incorporating these strategies, you can make more informed decisions and select products that truly align with your health goals. Taking the time to understand and interpret food labels can have a significant impact on your overall diet and well-being, leading to healthier, more conscious eating habits.

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