Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Can you read a food label?

The other day I was on the treadmill in the gym and caught a tiny bit of 'Rip Off Britain: Food'. The very lovely Gloria Hunniford was talking about food labelling - and in particular explaining why sometimes quantities on food labels just don't add up (sometimes the ingredient percentages quoted can add up to more than 100 per cent - and even with my limited maths skills I know that can't be right!). The answer to this riddle is that often food manufacturers quote the percentage of that ingredient before it is cooked, rather than as a percentage that ingredient is of the final product as it is eaten. This might for example mean that a product such as jam could start off with a lot of fruit and some sugar, but when cooked, would lose a lot of the fruit in the cooking process but not lose much of the sugar. So, while you might buy such a product thinking it was 70 per cent fruit, by the time it's going in your mouth things could be very different...

It's easy to know what's in some basic food staples
For me it was just another example of how food manufacturers are desperate to keep information about exactly how food is made to themselves. They'd probably call it 'good marketing' - after all we all know certain food are high in sugar and fat - and kind of like to forget the details sometimes and just enjoy a treat. But the problem really is, that we can't really tell what is a treat anymore - hidden (and often unnecessary IMHO) sugars and hard-to-pronounce chemicals litter the labels of prepared food. Low-fat foods are a prime example of clever labelling - as they often have extra sugar to make the end product taste appealing instead - a kind of giving with one hand and taking away with the other approach. While in a perfect world we'd make everything from scratch, it would be nice if we could just grab and go from time to time - but I think those that are selling us that dream don't want us to ask too many questions. Ignorance is bliss after all!

But maybe it's time to wise up?

What information are brands happy to share?

But once food is prepared for you, you have to begin to check labels
In fact, consumer groups have often argued that standards of food labelling are varied and confusing. At the moment, manufacturers are only obliged to give a breakdown of the nutritional content of the food if the product also makes a nutrition claim such as 'low-fat', or a health claim such as 'calcium helps build strong bones', or if vitamins or minerals have been added to the product. You might have heard of the 'traffic light' system, although even this has been criticised in the past as it allowed retailers and manufacturers to present the nutritional information in a variety of ways. From June 2013 however, the Department of Health launched a new 'front of pack' format using the red, amber and green colour-coding, with nutritional information and percentage reference intakes (RIs, formerly known as Guideline Daily Amounts) to display the amount of energy, fat, saturates, sugars and salt in food and drink products. This is of course still a voluntary system, but does aim to provide a more consistent format for UK consumers, and many of the leading supermarkets and manufacturers are signed up to it - perhaps because shoppers are becoming more savvy - or perhaps because the rising cost of treating diseases that result from obesity and poor nutrition are major issues facing our society (and government) today. A cynic might even suggest that if they know if don't do it voluntarily, it's likely they could be forced into following a system they didn't have a stake in developing. It's really worth scanning labels as you shop - if only to see which brands are happy to provide you with information. I'm guessing those that don't have a reason not to!

The 'Traffic Light' system can help you
see if a product is high or low in certain nutrients
Rather more encouragingly, manufacturers will face tougher laws after December 2016, when under EU rules, back of pack nutrition labelling will be compulsory for all pre-packed foods. After that it'll be up to the consumer to educate themselves more about nutrition - although it's still easy to feel confused when new research often contradicts what we may be have been led to believe was correct in the past!

How do you feel about reading labels on the foods you buy? Do you bother? Do you feel overwhelmed? Do you have a basic idea of what you should and shouldn't be looking for? Let me know in the comment box below. 


  1. I don't buy a huge amount of packaged and processed food but I do read the labels when I do ... and I am not sure I always totally understand what is written there. Better to cook from scratch therefore if you can.

    1. The moral of the story seems to be that you have to take responsibility for what you eat - harsh but true!!! Ideally everyone should cook from scratch, but I'd still like the powers that be to be more forceful with manufacturers - people have a right to know if food is unhealthy. I suspect that in the future processed food will be more regulated - just as tobacco and cheap alcohol became increasingly regulated as society had to deal with the fallout from that. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Great, informative piece! I didn't know about the traffic light system so I shall look out for that. I do think that trust in the supermarket sector generally is a real issue. I like discovering brands that are relatively okay - perhaps that could be your next piece?! x

    1. That's the holy grail isn't it?! A truly honest food company that is viable enough to find investment! I came across Goodness Gracious recently for baby food pouches (although too late for my lot!), and I like Nairn's oatcakes for a convenient on-the-go snack in a pack. But yes, decent food companies that offer convenience...mmmmmm.....

  3. A really interesting post! I am terrible for looking at labels, I will pick everything up - calorie content and then sugar and fat content is what I look at first! Sim #weightlosswednesday x

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