Whether you are trying to manage your weight, optimise your blood sugars, lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, or simply trying to eat healthier; reading food labels is a useful skill to help you eat better and prevent ill health.
As people are becoming more health-aware and products are coming up with all sorts of health claims on their packaging, it can be quite overwhelming when buying pre-packaged foods. Let me share how to sieve out irrelevant information and understand what you are buying easily!
Here are three things to look out: nutrition information panel, ingredient list and the Healthier Choice Symbols.
1. Nutrition information panel (NIP)
The nutrition information panel (NIP) provides most relevant information about the nutrition content in the pre-packaged products. You can then make an informed choice whether you should put it back on the supermarket shelves or place it in your shopping trolley (literally or virtually). And if you do, how much of it to have as part of a healthy diet.
Below is an example of a NIP.
The Per Serving column tells you how much nutrients you will get in a serving of the food or drinks recommended by the manufacturer.
The Per 100g column tells you how much nutrients you will get in 100g of the product.
Tip #1: Look out for these nutrients by default
In general, and almost always, choose foods that are higher in dietary fibre, and minerals such as calcium and iron. Eat fewer foods that are higher in sugars, sodium (salt), saturated, and trans-fat.
Tip #2: Use the ‘per 100g or ml’ column for comparison
To easily compare nutrition information across different products, use the information under ‘per 100g or ml’ column.
Tip #3: Note the ‘amount per serving’
Also called ‘serving size’, is determined by the manufacturer. It is not always a standard amount across similar products, nor is it the recommended portion for healthy amounts.
Some suggested serving size can be smaller than what people typically have under normal circumstances, so pay attention to the serving size and number of servings in that package, and compare it to how much you’re actually eating.
Tip #4: Look out for the types of carbohydrates
Sugars and dietary fibre fall under the category of carbohydrates. Many (if not most) NIPs do not distinguish between added sugars and other carbohydrates. It can be vague how much sugars are actually in the product. That’s why it’s important to look at the ingredient list (more on this later).
2. Ingredient list
To know for sure what your packaged food and drinks contain, have a look at the ingredients list.
All products should list all the ingredients in it, in decreasing order by weight from the largest to smallest amount found in the product.
When buying a product such as breakfast cereals or snack bars, sugar (and any of its form, more of this later) should not be in the first three in the list. Likewise in a product claiming wholegrains or high in wholegrains, wholegrains should be in the top two or three ingredients listed – indicating that wholegrains indeed make up the majority of the contents as claimed.
Tip #1: Watch out for hidden sugars
Highlighted ingredients above are forms of sugar.
There are many alternative names and forms to sugar, which do not spell out as s-u-g-a-r.
Let’s be clear about this: Sugars found in dairy, legumes, fruits and vegetables in their original whole forms are healthy. It’s the sugars that have been removed from their original source and added to food and drinks that we need to be mindful of.
See if you can spot any of these names below on the ingredient list when you go shopping next time!
Tip #2: Watch out for hidden trans-fats
Another ingredient to watch out for is “partially hydrogenated shortening” or “partially hydrogenated fat and oils”. This, as well as margarine, is something you should avoid as much as possible as the product contains trans-fat. This means double the trouble for your heart as trans-fat raises your bad cholesterol ‘LDL’ while lowers your good cholesterol ‘HDL’ levels. Having these foods regularly increases your risk of stroke and heart disease.
The good news is, from June 2021, Singapore will be banning major sources of partially hydrogenated oils, where it can be found in many commonly eaten pre-packaged foods such as ready-to-eat foods (e.g. instant noodles, potato chips, biscuits, peanut butter, and 3-in-1 drinks). These hydrogenated oils are added to prolong the shelf life of these products.
Tip #3: Recognise the ingredients
You should choose products with ingredients that you recognise most, and with the shortest list of ingredients as possible.
Many of these “healthy” and “natural” products can be high in calories, salt, fat and sugar.
Products marketed as “healthy” or “natural” may contain artificial sweeteners or ultra-processed ingredients that are difficult to pronounce, and may not be so good for you. Artificial sweeteners include sucralose, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, and more. Regardless of their claims on the packaging, reading and understanding the ingredients list gives you a peace of mind because you know what is actually in your food product.
3. Healthier Choice Symbols
Another useful tool to simplify your product comparison is the Healthier Choice Symbols (HCS). The HCS can help you choose healthier products within the same product categories.
A product can have up to two claims. Each claim has a different set of criteria that must meet the nutritional standards set by the Health Promotion Board. These triangular symbols are regulated and awarded to manufacturers whose products meet certain requirements.
For instance, products containing less than 0.5g trans-fat per 100g fat are allowed to be labelled as ‘trans-fat free”. This means that there could still be small amounts of trans-fat in the products and consuming large amounts of these can still significantly contribute to the trans-fat intake, so make sure you pay attention to the ingredient list!
While the Healthier Choice Symbol makes it easier for you to choose healthier products, it does not imply that they are healthy options to binge in big amounts and often. Remember that anything consumed in excess would not be good for you.
The bottom line is, the Healthier Choice Symbol helps you to pick healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.
What about health or nutrition claims?
Do these claims encourage you to choose this product? It even proclaims you guilt-free when you choose it (over others)! Don’t be tricked just yet.
Let’s flip over and have a look at the nutrition information panel.
Let’s break this down. This product gives you almost no protein and fat per serving size of 20g, and there are two servings per pack. One can easily finish a whole pack of 40g by yourself, worth 150 calories. It may not sound a lot. But these calories come from mostly sugars.
Now let’s have a look at the ingredient list. They are all variations of carbohydrates and sugars. Yes you get 4g dietary fibre from the pack, with 36g carbohydrates including 16g of sugars (that’s 3 spoonfuls of pure sugar). The healthier alternative is to eat 2 pieces of fruits like apple, pear or orange, which is also friendlier for your wallet. Nothing can be more REAL than actual fruits.
When compared to other fruit and vegetable snacks, I know this product does not contain any preservatives, and definitely do not contain anything that’s not derived from plants. Being made from REAL fruits and vegetables, I’m sure it does not give me any cholesterol. The gluten-free claim would give those who are gluten-sensitive a tick of approval.
As you can see here, these health and nutrient can be nutritionally meaningless and misleading.
Remember, similar to the HCS, any “no added sugar” claim does not necessarily mean the product has no sugar. It literally means no extra sugar added to the product during manufacturing. However, the ingredients used can already be naturally high in sugars, such as in canned fruits and fruit juices.
Use the NIP, ingredient list and HCS, these are great tools to help you shop at the supermarket.
Do we trust the claims on the packaging printed by the manufacturer? A lot of these has got to do with product marketing.
In short, take it with a pinch of salt (well, not literally).
It can be quite overwhelming to sieve out credible information and distinguish them among the good-will advice from family and friends. I hope the article has broken down and explain these features so they make sense to you.
If you want further information, the nutrition experts at MyDoc can help you navigate your way to better health and quality of life. Find us here.
Health Promotion Board. (2017). Healthier Choice Symbol Nutrient Guidelines . Singapore: Healthy Foods and Dining Department, Obesity Prevention Management Division. Retrieved from https://www.hpb.gov.sg/docs/default-source/default-document-library/hcs-guidelines-(april-2017)-edited.pdf?sfvrsn=1797eb72_0
The Straits Times. (2019, June 7). The Straits Times. Retrieved from The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/spore-to-ban-key-source-of-artificial-trans-fats-by-2021