Nutrition: How to decode food claims

Food manufacturers often stretch the truth an unhelpfully long way

We put a lot of faith and trust in food manufacturers to describe products to do what they say on the tin. But while food manufacturers can't lie, they do stretch the truth an unhelpfully long way and there are several terms you should be wary of because they promise a lot more than they deliver. There's plenty of legislation that regulates and controls how food can be described, but there are still loopholes which can be exploited.

For example, a label with pictures of grapes, oranges and bananas implies that the product is packed with juicy fruit. In practice it can legally be made from water, sugar and artificial fruit flavours.

Beware of 'made with...'

'Made with real fruit' is a bold claim often found on puddings, yogurt and drinks. Unfortunately there's no law requiring labels to say, clearly at least, how much fruit is actually in the product. You'll need to scan the list of ingredients and often you'll see the 'real fruit' portion is a measly 5% of the total product. The rest is made up with sugar, preservatives and colours so that the expensive 'real fruit' only gets a passing glance.

'Made with whole grains' is a similar white lie and implies that you're buying a healthy whole grain breakfast cereal or bread. Again, there's no legal requirement to say how much whole grain there is in the product. If the main ingredient is white flour with some brown colouring (usually caramel) and a few whole grains thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought, you'd be eating a product containing a lot less fibre than you think.

'Pure' and 'wholesome' are words that we would want to be associated with the food we eat. However, there's no legal definition of these terms in food law. The words 'pure, wholesome goodness' can be used to describe a poor quality cereal bar or a packet of instant porridge.

It's only natural?

'Natural' is probably the most popular but least trustworthy of the label terms. The word natural conjures up all that we would want and expect from a food item. However much we would like it to be, however, 'natural' is not the same as 'nutritious' and this loaded term says nothing about the nutritional value of the product.

There's no legal definition of the word 'natural'. You may be reassured when you see the term 'natural flavours' in a list of ingredients. These should be described more correctly as 'nature identical' since they are synthesized in the lab rather than extracted from an original food source.

'Made from...' is a clever way of implying health-giving properties, but in practice is simply an indication of the starting material. The claim that some margarine or crisps are 'made from olive oil' or '100% sunflower oil' is technically correct, but totally misleading. A lot can happen to oil during frying or during the process of converting liquid olive oil to a solid margarine. It can be heated or hydrogenated and change a wonderful healthy oil into an artery clogging margarine full of trans fats.

Read the label

With all this confusing and misleading information on labels how do you choose? When selling anything, food manufacturers want to put their product in the best possible light.

Good quality foods will also use the same loaded terms on their labels, but the product inside will be more of the description on the outside. The trick is to scan the list of ingredients. By law, all wrapped, manufactured foods (with a few exceptions such as cheese and some breads) must include a list of ingredients in descending order of quantity.

If the list includes one or more of the following: maltodextrin, glucose-fructose syrup, aspartame, sodium benzoate or monosodium glutamate (MSG), this indicates a poor quality product. Information is power. Once you know what to look for, and avoid, you're more able to buy the product you want and not be deceived along the way.

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