In an ideal world, we would only eat whole foods for optimal health. It might be common knowledge that most processed foods are not ideal for our health. These foods are often chock-full of artificial additives that can cause all sorts of negative side-effects on our body. But with such easy access to food nowadays, even the most mindful eaters among us would rely on a few packaged foods to accommodate our modern jam-packed schedules. For example, yogurt, butter, granola and shelf-stable broth provides some rare nutrients (yogurt for probiotic cultures, butter for vitamin K2) and a great convenience.
You can look at the back of a food package and identify these synthetic ingredients easily, as most are long names that you can hardly pronounce. But as consumers are becoming more health conscious than ever, food manufacturers are pushing the limits of what is considered truth and use misleading phrases to persuade you to buy their ‘healthy’ products. Obviously, the best way to avoid getting misled by these labels is to avoid processed foods altogether and opt for whole foods.
Here, we briefly explain how to read food labels, to identify the “healthy foods” that are really junk food in disguise.
1. Misleading ‘Organic’ Claims
As consumer awareness in organic products continues to rise, greedy food manufacturers are raking in profits by using false, deceptive organic labelling. To be labeled as organic, products must be certified in accordance with the requirements from the respective organic certification bodies, for example, USDA or Ecocert.
For USDA, there are 4 labelling categories for certified organic food products—100% organic, organic, made with organic and specific organic ingredients. The following information is sourced from OTA:
In Indonesia, for farms, producer groups, processors, packers, traders and importers who have met the organic standards and regulations of SNI 6729:2016, Permentan No. 64/2013 and Perka BPOM No.1/2017 certification requirements have the right to promote their achievements and market their products using the label ORGANIK Indonesia.
2. Check The Ingredient List
Ingredients are listed by the order of weight, so the first items of the list make up the bulk of the food. A common rule of thumb would be to study the first 3 ingredients, as they are the largest part of what you will be eating. If it contains refined grains, sugar, hydrogenated oils, or some hard-to-pronounce name, you should just put the product back to the shelf. Another good rule of thumb is to find products with ingredient list no longer than 2-3 lines. Lengthy lists are usually a sign that the product is highly processed and contain unnecessary additives.
You can check our post on the ingredients we avoid, but mobile apps such as Ingredio (only available on Android for now) is really convenient to quickly scan for hazardous ingredients at the store.
3. Sugar Have Different Names
It’s not always easy to spot sugar on the ingredient list, as it can show up under many different unrecognizable names. Manufacturers use tricky names to hide the sugar content of the foods.
To understand the names of sugar better, the following is sourced from Health Line:
- Types of Sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, rapadura sugar, evaporated cane juice and confectioners sugar.
- Types of Syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup and rice syrup.
- Other Added Sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin and maltose.
If you spot these names at the top of the ingredient list, or found several throughout the list, you can assume that the product is high in added sugar, and should be avoided or kept to a minimum.
4. Don’t Believe the Health Claims on the Front Package
One good rule of thumb is simply to ignore the health claims displayed on the front of the packaging. Food manufacturers use misleading or downright false claims to persuade you into purchasing their ‘healthy’ products.
A good brief explanation on these claims, is sourced from Health Line:
- Light: Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat, and some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead, like sugar.
- Multigrain: This sounds very healthy, but basically just means that there is more than one type of grain in the product. These are most likely refined grains, unless the product is marked as whole grain.
- Natural: This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply means that at some point the manufacturer had a natural source (for example, apples or rice) to work with.
- Organic: This label says very little about whether the product is healthy or not. For example, organic sugar is still sugar. Only certified organically grown products can be guaranteed to be organic.
- No Added Sugar: Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don't have added sugar doesn't mean they're healthy. Unhealthy sugar (synthetic) substitutes may also have been added.
- Low-calorie: Low-calorie products have to contain 1/3 fewer calories than the same brand's original product. However, one brand's low-calorie version may contain similar calories as the original of another product.
- Low-fat: This label almost always means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients listed on the back.
- Low-carb: Recently, low-carb diets have been linked with improved health. However, processed foods that are labeled low-carb are usually just processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat junk foods.
- Made with Whole Grain: There is probably very little whole grain in the product. Check the ingredients list and see where the whole grain is placed. If it is not in the first 3 ingredients, then the amount is negligible.
- Fortified or EEnriched: This basically means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk.
- Gluten-free: Gluten-free does not equal healthy. It simply means that the product doesn't contain wheat, spelt, rye or barley. Many foods are gluten-free, but can be highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
- Fruit-flavored: Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavor, such as strawberry yogurt. However, there may not be any fruit in the product, only chemicals designed to taste like fruit.
- Zero Trans Fat: If a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, it can be listed as containing “zero trans fats”. So if the serving sizes are misleadingly small, those trace amounts add up and the product can actually contain a lot of trans fat.
Despite these seemingly ‘healthy’ foods, there are many products that are actually healthy, organic and natural in the market, as seen on our webstore. It is good to note that some of the healthiest food may not have health claims, because they do not need those claims to prove themselves!
5. Look at Serving Size & Calorie Count
Nutrition facts labels show how many calories and nutrients are in a single serving of the product. However, these serving sizes are usually unrealistic and much smaller than what people generally eat in one serving. Brands are legally allowed to set their serving sizes, but it is in this way that food manufacturers disguise the actual calories and sugar amount, deceiving consumers into believing that the food has fewer calories and less sugar. You have to multiply all the amounts listed with the serving size to get a picture of how many calories or sugar is in one package. You will be shocked at how easy you can exceed your daily intake of calories, sugars, simple carbohydrates and saturated fats when you indulge in that bag of chips!