It is a Saturday morning and you are in your favourite supermarket doing the weekly grocery shopping. You took your time to make a list that has healthy choices so you walk down the aisle looking for products that are gluten free, natural, sugar free and many other leads. But are you sure that the label reflects the contents?
According to Dr David Okoth Dimo, a nutritionist, labels such as natural, sugar free and gluten free are often misleading.
“Most healthy eating enthusiasts look out for products labelled cholesterol-free. Usually, that does not mean that the product actually has no cholesterol. It means it has minimal cholesterol per serving. This is dangerous because that label will encourage you to consume more of it hence more amounts of cholesterol,” Dr Dimo explains.
While natural products are usually free of artificial flavours, added colours, and synthetic substances, they can still contain artificial ingredients and added sugars.
So, when you choose a product that says natural, read other ingredients to make sure that it is purely organic.
Sugar free means something has less than .5 grammes per serving. If you want to keep away from sugar, make sure the product you choose does not contain carbohydrates as well, which includes complex carbohydrates, fibre and sugar.
If you choose products labelled fat-free means the product contains less than .5 grammes per serving. The problem is these products tend to be filled with lots of sugar, salt, or thickeners to make up for the lack of fat.
Sheila Karuhanga, a nutritionis, says if you see artificial flavours, it means the taste does not come from a whole food source, such as a spice, fruit, vegetable, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish or poultry.
Both natural and artificial flavours are made in a lab, but artificial flavouring is created from synthetic rather than natural chemicals.
One benefit of choosing natural over artificial is that natural flavours often exist in more nutrient-dense foods.
Sell by date
Dr Dimo says there is understandable confusion between sell by, best by and use by. The “sell by” date does not actually concern you, the consumer. It tells the store how long to display the product for sale.
Best if used by date is not a warning for safety, but rather for taste. This is the recommended date for best flavour or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
“Use by is the date you should pay the closest attention to. It is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality, and has been determined by the manufacturer of the product,” he says.
What to look out for
Dr Dimo says you should look for ingredients that sound unfamiliar and, when you spot one, put the food back on the shelf. These ingredients tend to be additives and preservatives that are bad for our health in large quantities.
If you are not sure which ingredients are good and which are bad, take a photo of the labels on your favourite packaged foods and research the ingredients before buying that go-to snack again.
Buy whole, natural foods whenever possible. But if you must get something packaged, always check the ingredient list first. The best rule of thumb is the fewer ingredients, the better.
“Beyond the ingredient list, read the nutrition facts and check if the food has protein and complex carbs, then check for sugar and fat content; bonus points if there is fiber in there,” Karuhanga advises.
In case of sugar
To avoid accidentally consuming a lot of sugar, watch out for its various names. Sugar goes by various names, many of which you may not recognise. These include cane sugar, invert sugar, corn sweetener, dextran, molasses, malt syrup, maltose, and evaporated cane juice.