Grocery shopping can be overwhelming. With so many products on the shelves, how do you know what’s healthy, and what’s not? The best way to find out what you’re eating is to take the extra 5 seconds to read the nutritional label on the back of every product. This label will tell you everything you need to know.
Here’s what to look for:
#1 Expiry, ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ date
You may have heard the saying: “best before, fine after.” Most packaged foods are full of preservatives, which is why they can last so long on the supermarket shelf. Fresh food is always best – but if you’re shopping for pantry goods, search for products with short expiry dates.
#2 Ingredients list
Flip the product over, and you’ll see an ingredients list. The most important thing to remember is that by law, ingredients must be listed in descending order. That means the first ingredient listed makes up the most of the product, and so on.
Let’s say you’re looking at a tub of strawberry yoghurt. Strawberries should be at the top of the list, but in reality, most commercial yoghurts are loaded with sugar. The same goes with peanut butter. Many of the popular, mass-produced brands are packed with sugar and trans fats (more on that in a minute), so you want to look for all-natural brands that contain peanuts and not much else.
The golden rule? If sugar is the first ingredient listed, put the product back on the shelf.
#3 Serving size
This section often confuses consumers – and that’s exactly what manufacturers want. The nutritional panel outlines the amount of sugar, fat, fibre and energy in one serve, which is usually calculated as ‘per 100g.’ But here’s the catch: the serving size tends to be smaller. For example, a muesli bar might say it contains 10g of sugar per 100g… but the bar is actually 200g. It is not about counting calories nor do you need to be a mathematician to be healthy, but it is important to be aware that the numbers on the nutritional panel are technically double if you consume the entire bar.
#4 Sugar content
Speaking of sugar, healthy packaged food will have under 10g – and ideally, less than 5g – of the sweet stuff per 100g. This rule doesn’t apply to fruit in its pure form. A piece of fruit may have more sugar than that, but it’s natural sugar combined with nutrients, fibre, and other wholefood goodness – so it won’t spike your blood sugar levels.
We’re talking about added sugar. There are dozens of different names for added sugars, so look for the following ingredients:
- Agave syrup
- Apple or pear juice concentrate
- Cane sugar
- Corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Glucose syrup
- Golden syrup
- Fructose – which is the worst kind of added sugar.
Fructose lights up the brain’s reward centre, and it’s addictive. While our bodies can break down glucose (i.e. the natural sugar in fruit) for energy, fructose travels straight to the liver, where it’s stored as fat.
What are the best natural sweeteners? Avoid added sugars, and enjoy small amounts of rice malt syrup, maple syrup, coconut sugar and honey instead.
#5 Salt or sodium content
Sodium is an essential electrolyte for our muscles and nervous system, but too much of it can cause high blood pressure and increase the risk of heart disease. Likewise, some salts (like Himalayan salt) are good for you because they’re unrefined and rich in minerals. However, the processed salts in many packaged foods can mess with your blood sugars and heart health.
Try stick to products with 250-300mg of salt/sodium per 100g. And check the salt content of sweet foods too – you’d be surprised at how many products rely on salt for taste.
#6 Fibre content
Nutrition Australia recommends 25g of fibre a day for women, and 30g for men. If you’re looking at products made with wholegrains (like brown rice), they should have a high fibre content. On the other hand, products containing refined grains and starches won’t. The best way to meet your daily fibre intake is by eating wholefoods such as fruit, vegies, nuts, seeds and legumes.
#7 Saturated and trans fats content
There are distinct types of fat. Healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and olive oil help to boost our mood, balance our hormones, and improve our skin health. They’re ‘good’ fats. Saturated and trans fats are the ‘bad’ fats that can potentially clog your arteries, so you want to avoid them. On the nutritional panel, you’ll spot a section called Total Fat. Underneath that, it will list how many grams of saturated and trans fats the product contains.
Start by looking for products with 0g trans fats, then move onto the ingredients list. If a product contains vegetable oil (canola, rapeseed, peanut or soybean oil), keep hunting. Vegetable oils may sound healthy, but they’re cheap, mass-produced oils that can cause inflammation and affect your gut and digestion.
Remember, ‘low fat’ foods are often full of sugar, artificial sweeteners and preservatives to make them taste better.
#8 Artificial ingredients
Our bodies don’t recognise artificial ingredients, so they can be very difficult to digest or tolerate. These nasties come in many forms, including artificial sweeteners, colours and preservatives, sugar alcohols, synthetic trans fats, food additives, high-fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate (MSG). You’ll find them in many packaged and processed foods. They’re used to enhance the look, taste and texture of food, and increase its shelf life.
The golden rule? If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, avoid it.
What’s your top tip for smart grocery shopping? Share with us @lornajaneactive
Learn more about nutritional labels. At GoodnessMe Box we help people to navigate the supermarket and understand exactly what they’re eating. We’ve put together a detailed guide to reading food labels, and it’s free! You can download it here.