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How to tell if the food you’re buying is actually healthy

Jun 11, 2021
Learn to read food labels like a pro. Source: Getty

Low fat, no sugar, all natural, gluten free, plant based — we could go on. A simple stroll down the super market aisle these days is a mine field of slogans promising you better health, a slimmer waist and general superiority over your fellow shoppers, but what’s behind these claims and are they all they’re cracked up to be?

With the increasing focus on healthy eating and smart lifestyle choices to see us through to a ripe old age, shoppers are on the look out for products that aren’t filled with the kind of junk we so readily ate for so many years. However, despite the clever marketing claims, not all health products really are a better choice — indeed some are just expensive versions of a home-brand counterpart.

Leading dietician Susie Burrell, who works with healthy spread company Mayver’s, says as a general rule of thumb, the shorter the ingredient list on a product, the less processed and healthier it will be.

Asked what shoppers should watch out for when choosing items off the shelf, she says to be cautious of any ingredient names you don’t recognise, as they’re typically additives, as well as added sugars that may be disguised as syrups or starches. Some of the most common names you’ll come across include beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, golden syrup, honey, oat syrup, glucose, corn sweetener and fruit juice concentrate. If you see any of these near the top of the ingredients list then the product you’re about to purchase is high in added sugar.

While it’s a naturally occurring ingredient, sugar is quickly converted into fat in our bodies and wreaks havoc on our gut if consumed in excessive amounts. Burrell says it’s best to opt for foods with less than 10 grams of sugar per serve.

“Keep in mind that there is also a difference between added sugars and naturally-occurring sugars that can be found in dairy and fruit-based products,” she adds.

When it comes to health claims on packaging, Burrell says it gets a bit trickier. While some like ‘no added sugar’ are regulated, other more general terms like ‘healthy’, ‘light’ or ‘natural’ can be used freely. These claims can often make a product appear healthier when in fact it’s the opposite.

“That’s why it’s best to go back to the nutritional table and ingredients list to determine what’s really in your product,” she advises.

For a point of reference, other common claims you may come across include ‘made with whole grains’, ‘gluten-free’, ‘fortified’ or ‘fruit-flavoured’. And if you’re reading this and thinking but gluten-free is healthy right? Well, yes and no — just because something is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier — the product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye or barley. Often, gluten-free products contain preservatives, thickeners and additives that aren’t good for your gut. And most of the time, fruit-flavoured products don’t contain any real fruits either.

However, it’s also important to note that not every health claim listed on a product is misleading either.

The bottom line?

“The shorter the ingredient list the better,” Burrell says. “Opt for products with no added sugars and if you don’t recognise ingredients, chances are the food is not so healthy.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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