Judging a book by its cover: Can you tell how healthy a food is by looking at the label?
by Gael Myers, Accredited Practising Dietitian
- February 6, 2020
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- Healthy eating
- Top Tips
- Fruit and Vegetables
- Junk Food
With our supermarket aisles overflowing with choice and the persuasive influence of clever marketing and ‘buzz’ nutrition words, choosing the healthiest option is not always obvious.
We’ve put together an easy guide to help you cut through the claims and decide for yourself if a food is a healthy choice.
Watch out for sneaky marketing tactics
Food manufacturers know that consumers want to eat better, and use a range of marketing techniques to make foods look and sound healthier than they actually are.
We call this ‘health washing’ – dressing up a product as healthier than it really is to mislead consumers and convince them to buy these unhealthy foods.
Take a peek at any supermarket shelf and you’ll see a dizzying array of products making health claims like ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘lite/light’, ‘clean’, ‘fresh’, ‘wholesome’, ‘superfood’, ‘baked not fried’ or ‘sweetened with fruit’. These claims can make a product sound healthy but are usually meaningless.
A previous LiveLighter investigation of supermarket foods that claim to be natural found that almost half were classified as unhealthy foods. When looking at just foods in the snack food aisle, an appalling 90% of those that claimed to be natural were in fact unhealthy.
Although we may feel that these types of claims don’t have any effect on our purchasing habits, research shows that the use of health buzzwords on a food package gives the food a ‘health halo’ that makes us see the product as healthier, even if it isn’t healthy at all. For example, a fruit bar may sound healthy as it claims to be ‘lunchbox friendly’, contain ‘superfoods’ and have ‘no artificial stuff’ even though it is 50% sugar!
2. Package trickery
Brown paper packaging, green leaves, muted colours, nature landscapes, images of fruits and vegetables, minimalist designs and earthy fonts can make us think a food is less processed than it really is. These strategies are used to subtly evoke the perception that a food is healthy without the manufacturer having to actually make this claim.
3. Free from…
Have you noticed that every second food product these days seems to be making a claim to be ‘gluten-free’, ‘fat-free’, ‘refined sugar-free’ or ‘cholesterol-free’? ‘Free from’ claims can be used to hide less palatable facts about the product. For example, lollies may make a claim that they are 99% fat-free although they are almost 100% sugar! Crackers may be marketed as gluten-free but can still be highly processed and packed with saturated fat and salt.
Labelling claims often focus on the positive elements of the product but don’t tell the full story about what’s in the food.
How do we know if we’re buying healthy products?
1. Read the nutrition information panel
For a quick guide to the healthiness of packaged foods, use our simple guide below. These numbers are not the only important thing, but they’re a good place to start.
Find the ‘per 100g’ column on the nutrition information panel and compare this against our guide.
If the 100g value for saturated fat, total fat, sugar and salt falls in the green column, it’s a better option than a product that falls in the orange or red column.
Fibre is something we want more of so look for products with more than 3g per serve.
2. Check the ingredients list
Ingredients will be listed from highest to lowest by weight. If fat or sugar are near the front of the list, the product is probably not a healthy choice. A long ingredients list often means the food is highly processed.
Food manufacturers use sneaky names for fat, sugar and salt to make products sound healthier than they really are. Watch out for these!
Fruit juice/puree concentrate
Oils (of any kind)
Flavour enhancer (621) [monosodium glutamate (MSG)]
Would the real healthy foods please stand up?
Whole foods, foods without a label and foods with only a few ingredients are usually cheaper and better for our health. This includes fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs, fish, red meat, chicken, dairy foods and wholegrains.
What are some of the sneaky marketing tactics you’ve spotted on food labels?