We have come a long way since the famine, there is no doubt. We now have more food options available in Ireland than ever before. Supermarket isles are packed with colourful eye-catching options, all fighting for our attention. Yet sometimes making the healthy choice can seem like a minefield. Crafty marketing slogans can mask hidden additives. Foods that are labelled as low-fat, tooth-kind or sugar-free are more likely to contain sugar, chemical additives or artificial sweeteners. It can be frustrating to learn this, especially when the product appears to be marketed as the healthy choice.
By Sorcha Molloy. 

My advice is to try not be duped by the marketing, delve a little deeper and learn how to decode food labels. Familiarising yourself with food labels empowers you to become a savvier shopper, make informed healthy choices and avoid chemical-laden foods which may impact negatively on our health.

The first step to healthy shopping is simple: buy your food in its most natural state. Ask yourself what has happened to the food or drink before it reaches the shops. Try to buy organic produce that has not been sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. These can act as endocrine disrupting chemicals which may upset the delicate male and female hormone balance and wreak havoc with your gut flora.

Ideally, your food should come without ingredient labels – as whole foods. But saying that, few of us have time to create all of our food from scratch. For that reason, you need to become a label detective. Labels on the food we eat are the ones that really matter, yet most of us lead such busy lives with little time to spare for reading the small print. It’s a habit worth getting into though. Once you begin reading labels you could be in for a big surprise – you probably had no idea you were putting so many chemicals into your body.

The ingredients on a food label are listed with the first ingredient having the greatest quantity and the last having the least quantity in that product. Unfortunately, most labels do not tell us exactly how much of each ingredient is in the food: so one fish pie could contain more fish than another and we wouldn’t know. With this in mind, it’s best to avoid ingredients which sound like a chemistry lesson. Common sense should tell us that this isn’t a very natural or healthy food.

As a general guide, I recommend to avoid products with E numbers. Some are fine to eat, as they are naturally derived, but the vast majority are not and many have known side effects. There are books on the market that provide E number references and websites that list them. If you are very diligent, you could check them when shopping, but that could become tedious and time consuming. The best action is simply to avoid the processed products containing them.

E numbers include permitted colours (some natural, some not), preservatives, permitted antioxidants (some natural, such as ascorbic acid or vitamin C, others not), emulsifiers and stabilisers, sweeteners, solvents, mineral hydrocarbons and modified starches. Some products might list natural annatto colouring on the label, for instance. This is labelled E160b and has no known adverse side effects.

Artificial sweeteners are chemicals and they are best avoided. Most people use artificial sweeteners when wanting to lose weight because they contain no calories. I accept this is tempting but I really want you to realise that they are not a good solution. As far as weight loss goes, they may actually help prevent it. Sweeteners can change your appetite.

Normally when you eat something sweet, your body expects a bulk of calories to come with that food. However, artificial sweeteners are sweet with no calories so you actually get an increase in appetite in order to prompt you to obtain those calories from somewhere else. So artificial sweeteners can in fact make you gain weight, because you end up eating more and it doesn’t eliminate your sweet tooth.

When rats are fed artificial sweeteners they take in more calories, weigh more and, even more worryingly, this weight is made up of an increase in body fat percentage. It is not only your weight that can be affected. Research on more than 400,000 people over 10 years showed that not only did they gain weight, but they had an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Be very wary of labels which say they have no added sugar, low sugar, light/lite or diet – usually these mean that an artificial sweetener has been added instead of sugar. So skip the slimline!

Sugar may also be broken down into a number of sugars in the ingredient list. This is a manufacturer’s trick to avoid grouping them together and having to list sugar as the first, and therefore greatest, ingredient. Sugar can be broken down into sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, maltodextrin, lactose, maltose and corn syrup. In one breakfast cereal there may be five different sugars listed in the ingredients. To understand the total sugar content in your food item, check the nutritional information column. A good rule of thumb is to choose foods which list ‘carbohydrates of which are sugars’, less than 10g per 100g. It is helpful to know that four grams of sugar is a teaspoon.

Generally, the longer the ingredients list, the more suspicious you should be about the origin of the product. Manufacturers argue that additives, preservatives and flavourings, and so on, are used in such small quantities that they will not have any adverse effect. However, when you take into account all the small amounts in all the different products we eat and drink every day, these small amounts soon add up. I believe we’re unwittingly creating a chemical cocktail inside ourselves – and nobody knows exactly how these chemicals will react together. It is quite impossible to make sure every morsel you eat is chemical-free, especially if your lifestyle means you have to take snacks or meals away from home, as most of us do. Just make sure that what you eat at home is as natural and healthy as possible. Everything in moderation is the best rule to follow. If your busy life means that sometimes you have to buy convenience or packaged food, then find the best brand you can and go for the shortest, least chemical-looking ingredients list possible.

In an ideal world, we would all shop at small retailers offering local, organic produce but that isn’t always practical. If you can support your local shop, wholefood store, organic farm shop, farmers’ market or independent health food store, then do – your food will contain far less food miles and your support will be far more helpful to the local economy and your long term health.

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