De-Mystifying Food Packaging

Low Fat…. Nutrient Dense… High Protein….Organic… Grass-Fed… when buying packaged food, it’s not uncommon to be bombarded with information and claims, so it’s no wonder it can leave a lot of us feeling confused!

Now let’s get things straight to begin with…this isn’t a post telling you what you should and shouldn’t eat (sorry to disappoint if that’s what you were here for!) but hopefully by now you’ll know that there is no simple answer to that question – because to put it simply, it depends (that old chestnut!). It depends on the person, their health needs, their lifestyle and of course their goals. However, what we can share with you is a concise overview of a few common food packaging claims, and how to make sense of a whole lotta information overload!

No Label

Let’s start with the basics! What to do if a food item has no label? No claims, no traffic light stickers, no ingredients list? Well the chances are, you’re onto a winner… because it’s most likely you are holding a whole food! We’ll come onto ingredients list next, but if you’ve picked something up that needs no introduction (such as a vegetable!) then it’s likely that it’s made up of the good stuff. Of course, not all whole foods are equal, and this certainly isn’t the go-ahead to devour a kilo of cashew nuts in one sitting, but for most of us and our health goals, eating whole foods will do a lot of good. If you have specific nutrition goals and want to find out a little more though, you can always look it up. My Fitness Pal is a great tool for checking out the macro nutrients of food, especially in the absence of a nutritional content label – but we’re also delving pretty deep here when the simple answer is: go for it!

The Ingredients List

As a general rule, the fewer ingredients, the better. If the ingredients list is verging on dissertation length, then see this as a cue to consider popping the item back on the shelf. Moreover, if you’re spotting tons of ingredients containing numbers or words you don’t recognise, or perhaps they sound like something you’d be more likely to find in a laboratory than a field – these are probably clues that it might be filled with some not-so-desireable chemicals. See if you can find an alternative that sports a smaller and more recognisable list of ingredients. Or, better still, if you’re scanning the ingredients list and realise you could probably make it yourself but without any of the nasties – give it a go! 

The Traffic Light Labels

We’ve all seen the Red Amber and Green ‘Traffic Light’ labels on food packets. These are based on your RDA, as suggested by the Food Standards Agency (part of Gov.uk). It’s really important to note though, that these are based on the average adult intake, and don’t take into account an individual’s specific information. For example, a 6ft tall manual labourer is going to be burning a heck of a lot more than a 5ft office manager who spends most of their 9 hr working day sat down… so the RDA is not a perfect stat.

Typically the RAG colours are used to indicate whether a food has high medium or low amounts of:

  • Energy (kj and kcal)
  • Fat
  • Saturated Fat
  • Sugars
  • Salt

…relative to the Recommended Daily Allowance.

This can be extremely helpful at a glance depending on your goals. For example, if you’re looking to lower your total calorific intake, the RAG labels might help to choose a lower total-calorie food. Or perhaps you are hoping to reduce your salt intake – you can easily see which foods contain more or less salt.

HOWEVER…
…and it’s a big however! The traffic light system can give the impression that red food is bad, and green is good, which is not only false, but can also be unhelpful if we’re looking to build a positive relationship with food, establishing long-lasting healthy nutrition habits.

Here are some key things to note…

  • Just because something is shown as red doesn’t mean it is inherently bad or ‘unhealthy’ – it just means it’s ‘relatively’ high in that particular nutrient / ingredient. For example… mackerel fillets flag as red for fat, despite being highly nutritious and packed full of healthy fats.
  • We’ll say it again: the figures are relative to a typical adult’s RDA. An athlete’s calorific requirement might be three times that of the typical adult, in which case they may be actively seeking out higher calorie food – where foods scoring green in the energy department barely scratch the surface for their energy needs. So they could even be indicating the exact opposite of what you’re hoping to achieve!

Ultimately…
The system is super simplistic, because it’s designed to help people compare foods at a quick glance.  So should you use it? Well – if the system provides you with information that is helpful to know based on your goals, then sure – go for it. If it’s irrelevant to you, then ignore it. Consider using a different way of gauging a food’s suitability for consumption, such as checking out the ingredients list (or choosing foods that don’t have one!). And if you’re not sure? Talk to us! 

What’s the Agenda

Food manufacturers will do just about anything to grab your attention – from the basics of brightly coloured packaging, to the cunning placement of the food on the shelf at eye level that returns highest profit – so don’t be sucked in! They have an agenda. With health and fitness being on the radar for more people than ever these days, the latest food manufacturer tactic is to use health related buzz words and claims on packets, sometimes non-specific or even completely irrelevant. Some are simply bizarre, and yet if you don’t step back, it can be all too easy to be sucked in. Here are two classic examples:

High Protein Cereal Bar
Some cereal bars are indeed higher in protein than others, but there is no minimum protein content requirement to warrant this label, so have a little look for yourself! 3g of Protein in the bar compared to the usual 1.2g? Sure it’s higher than usual, but it’s hardly knocking on the door of a cooked chicken breast.

Low Fat Yoghurt
Be wary of food items marketed as low fat / carb etc, if the food product you’re looking at is naturally high in said macro nutrient. It’s likely that the food has undergone heavy processing to make it so, or has other added undesirable ingredients to mask its lack of fat/carbs/whatever it claims to be low in! Fat free yoghurt? Unless you’re looking at a tub of skyr, yoghurt is not naturally fat free, so if the tub you’ve picked up is, it’s likely loaded with added cornstarch, sugars and stabilisers to help it out!

The Take-Away 

If you forgive the turn of phrase… what’s the take-away here? Ultimately, you’ve got to take packaging claims with a pinch of salt (stop us, please!). Red traffic light labels don’t necessarily mean something is bad, and just because something is marketed as ‘high protein’ doesn’t mean it stacks up against the humble chicken breast! So let’s keep it simple…. 

  • Where possible, go for whole foods
  • Vegetables are your friend (there are plenty of articles out there on this, so we’ll save you the veg-spiel today!)
  • Try to limit foods containing unrecognisable ingredients and strange chemicals

But above all…

  • Focus on you. It’s hard to not be de-railed by others’ opinions when we are constantly bombarded on various media platforms with conflicting advice, but try to filter out the noise, see past the ulterior motives, and focus on what is relevant to you, your goals, and where you’re at right now.

And of course, if you’re looking for a little more support with your nutrition, get in touch with us on central@secondcityfitness.com to find out about our bespoke nutrition coaching options, and how we might be able to support you in reaching your goals.

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