Supermarket aisles can be a minefield – if you don’t read the labels carefully you could get caught out. Here’s our guide to becoming a label-savvy shopper!
Chocolate isn’t always chocolate…
Ever wondered why those bargain choc-coated biscuits didn’t really hit the spot? Choc and chocolate are two different things. Chocolate coated means just that – coated with real chocolate made from cocoa beans. Choc, on the other hand, can mean anything brown and vaguely chocolate-flavoured.
Meat pie, or beef pie?
A plain old meat pie is beef in gravy wrapped in pastry, right? Not really – ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ aren’t the same thing in the eyes of the law. A meat pie must contain at least 25 per cent meat flesh, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come from a cow. Buffalo, camel, deer, goat, pig, poultry, rabbit or sheep also fit the bill, so look for the meat you want.
Diet versions of foods could be really low-joule (fewer than 170kJ per 100g) or they may just have 40 per cent fewer kilojoules than the regular, non-diet version. So it pays to check the kilojoule count; there might be more there than you bargained for.
You should only see this sort of claim on foods which are low-fat (less than 3 per cent fat for a food, and less than 1.5 per cent for a drink). However, some manufacturers have gone too far in the past, making claims such as ‘93% fat-free’. Whatever the claim, don’t lose sight of the actual fat content, and the total kilojoules.
Low-fat or just reduced-fat?
A food that’s reduced-fat isn’t the same as one that’s low-fat. Low-fat has a real meaning (see % fat-free, above). Reduced, on the other hand, generally has 25 per cent less than the regular version of whatever’s being reduced.
Low cholesterol, no cholesterol
Labels claiming low or no cholesterol can be tricky because it’s saturated fat that makes the most difference to your cholesterol levels. So even if a food is claiming that it’s ‘low-cholesterol’, it can still contain a considerable amount of saturated fat (as much as 20 per cent).
No added sugar
This claim should mean that what you’re buying contains no added sugar in any form – no sucrose, lactose, honey or malt, for example. However, there’s a loophole – some products are now adding fruit juice concentrate, which is sometimes highly refined and as you’d expect, high in sugar. New regulations currently in the pipeline will close this loophole, but until then, check the label.
‘Country-style’, ‘grandma’s recipe’ and ‘best ever’ are all examples of what lawyers call ‘puffery’. They’re not considered to be misleading, even if they mean nothing at all. For example, ‘country-style beef casserole’ sounds good, but casserole in the country is pretty much the same as casserole anywhere else.
Baked, not fried
This might sound healthier than fried, but that’s not always the case – there’s more than one way to pack a snack with fat. You can fry it, or you can add the fat first and then bake it. If you see this claim, turn over the pack and check the fat content; it might be similar to the fatty snack you’re looking to avoid.
Natural, fresh and pure
‘Pure’ should mean the product is 100 per cent free of extra ingredients.
'Natural' implies that the food product is made from ingredients nature has produced. So something described as ‘natural’ ought to have limited artificial additives. Remember to check the ingredient list.
A food described as ‘fresh’ can mean several things – this generally implies it’s not been frozen or preserved in any way, but manufacturers have to tread a fine line to work out what’s likely to be misleading. For example, while most people might accept pasteurised milk as fresh, they are less sure about pasteurised juice.
No artificial additives
Take care with this claim: not all additives are considered artificial. Some are natural substances, or reproduced in a factory to be identical to the natural chemical. So ‘no artificial additives’ (or colours, flavours, or preservatives) could be misleading if what you’re actually looking for is a food with no additives at all.
Yoghurt or yoghurt-like
Real yoghurt has a healthy image, so all sorts of snacks try to cash in by using something called yoghurt coating, especially granola bars or other cereal-based foods. But this is often closer to white chocolate than yoghurt! Don’t be taken in – skip the extra sugar and saturated fat on offer.
Fruit vs flavouring
If there are fruit pictures on the label, be sure to double-check the ingredient label to see how much real fruit is actually in there – sometimes, the product owes more to artificial flavours and colours than to actual fruit.
Vegetable oil vs unsaturated fat
Just because the ingredient label says a product contains vegetable oil, don’t assume that it’s a healthy unsaturated fat. Palm oil (which has 50 per cent saturated fat) is widely used in foods and can be disguised as the healthier-sounding vegetable oil.
Fruit juice vs fruit drink
Look carefully at the name of the type of drink you’re buying. ‘Fruit juice’ can have a little added sugar, but that’s it. ‘Fruit drinks’, on the other hand, can be watered down and then pumped up with flavours, additives, colours and sugars (similar to sports drinks). And that’s not all – some of the ‘orange’ in your fruit drink can be extracted from the peel, with the bitter taste removed (usually listed as ‘whole orange extract’) – so keep that in mind when making your purchase.
Is wholegrain all wholegrain?
If the label of a mixed food proclaims itself as ‘wholegrain’ (for example, ‘wholegrain pasta’ or ‘wholegrain tortillas’), check the ingredients list to find out how much of the product is actually wholegrain. It’s not uncommon for these products to contain more refined flour/grain than wholegrain. Manufacturers should not make any claim that could be considered misleading, but there’s no specific laws yet about the various wholegrain claims.
Manufactured meat or real meat?
Both chicken and fish products can be made from, and sold as, either whole fillets or ‘formed’ or ‘manufactured’ meat. Look carefully at the descriptions on the box in the frozen food aisle (‘fillet’ or ‘whole fillets’ vs simply ‘chicken’ or ‘fish’). Formed meat is small pieces of meat compressed together and then cut to shape. Manufactured meat is usually pulverised meat, mechanically recovered from the leftovers once the fillets are removed, that is combined with binding agents and shaped.