To know if a certain product is healthy for you, you need to read the food labels. Because reading food labels is a hassle and not everyone knows how to interpret it, some countries started marking products with a star or color code to make it clear to consumers what is healthy and what is not. While those systems may seem like a good idea, it’s much more complicated than this. There are just too many factors that play a role in deciding if a certain product is healthy or not.
Nestle is one of the companies that managed to fool the star system in Australia rating their cacao powder with 4.5 stars out of 5, making Milo look like a very healthy product. They based this scale on the chocolate milk you get after dissolving 3 teaspoons of Milo in 200ml of skimmed milk. This is basically tricking costumers because research showed that only 13% of the people drinking Milo uses skimmed milk. 55% is actually using full fat milk which brings the rate down to 2.5 stars. The powder itself would score just 1.5 stars. The other question, that didn’t show up in the news article is how many teaspoons people are really using for their chocolate milk.
It’s quite logical that with these systems, companies are going to look for loopholes to make their product appear better. Bad ratings is bad commercial. This is also one of the reasons why packages can be very misleading.
What do food claims on packages really mean?
“All natural” means there are no artificial flavors and synthetic substances in the product, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing added to it. There can still be added fructose, corn syrup, salt and other natural products, that are not necessarily healthy.
“No gluten” is only good news for people that are gluten intolerant or sensitive. For everyone else the same product with gluten might be a better choice, since gluten comes together with fibers. Don’t be fooled by the “no gluten” label on products that naturally don’t contain gluten, such as corn and rice crackers. [read more about gluten]
“Zero added sugar” doesn’t mean no carbohydrates. The product is likely to contain natural sugars and/or other added carbohydrates like maltodextrin. You can find this claim on yogurts, biscuits and juices.
“Zero trans-fat” can be put on a package if there is less than 0.5g trans-fat per serving. So depending on how many servings you plan to eat this product can still be bad for your health. Watch out for “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredient list.
“Light” can mean a lot of things. It can even mean that color of the product is light (mainly when it comes to oils). The dietary meaning of a “light product” is that contains 50% less fat than the comparable regular version of this product. Make no mistakes - light chips, is still not equal to healthy chips.
Healthy and not healthy is not always black and white
If we could draw up a list with what is healthy and what is not everything would be a lot easier, but unfortunately, the health benefits of a product depends on your overall diet. As described in the golden rules - eating too much of something healthy is also not good. In some cases it is better to eat something sugary than a salad, especially when it comes to nutrition around training. Putting chocolate milk on the blacklist is wrong, because it’s actually excellent for recovery after training.
The nutrition table
The nutrition table describes the nutritional values of the product. How much calories and macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) are in a specific product. Usually there are two columns with numbers, one is “per 100g” and the other one is “per portion”. Be aware that the portion listed on the product is not always the portion you are going to eat from it. For example, the portion on a food label of a chocolate spread is 15g, but most people put much more than that on their sandwich.
The amounts of salt in a product might be confusing. The general recommendation is to consume no more than 2300mg of sodium a day which is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of salt, but on the packages you sometimes find “salt”, sometimes “sodium”, and sometimes both but with a different number. Sodium(Na) is not the same as Salt (NaCl), but a part of it, 40%, to be accurate. So to calculate how much sodium you consumed, check the package and double the amount of salt with 0.4.
The nutrition table will tell you the numbers, but it doesn’t give any information on where this nutrient actually comes from. For example, nutrition table of a carton of milk will reveal that there is sugar inside. This is because milk naturally contains sugar (lactose) and not necessarily not because food companies added sugar to it. This is the reason you shouldn’t settle on reading the nutrition table alone. Take a look also in the list of ingredients.
List of ingredients
Most people are focused on the quantity of calories and macronutrients their food, and forget that also the quality matters. The list of ingredients is more than just numbers, it tell you what the food actually contains.
The ingredients in the list are ordered by the amount the product. If the word “sugar” is one of the first on your cereal box, it might not be as healthy as you think. A less obvious example is the one of bread. If “enriched bleached flour” is the first ingredient to appear on your whole wheat bread, there is a chance that this bread doesn’t contain that much whole wheat. As long that there is more than 1% whole wheat in it, the manufacturer can call it “whole bread”. Same goes for “12 grain bread”: it’s enough to have 12 single grains of different types to call it 12 grain bread.
If the list of ingredients contains words that remind you of chemistry lesson is usually not a good sign. For me, the rule of thumb is: The list of ingredients is preferably as short as possible and contain only words you can pronounce.