Food labels can be confusing. Today, consumers are more health-conscious than ever, and food manufacturers know it. After decades of marketing research, we know packaging, and labelling, plays a huge part in whether or not consumers buy certain foods. However, as a shopper, making healthy choices is tough when (for example) added sugar is hidden under scientific names.
So, here are a few tips to beat the marketers and steer clear of foods that look healthy but, might not be so in reality:
- Study the ingredient list
Product ingredient list is listed in order of quantity – from highest to lowest. This means the first ingredient is what the manufacturer used the most of.
A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, as they make up the largest part of what you’re eating. If the first ingredients include refined grains (eg. white flour), a type of processed sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is not as healthy as it has been made out to be.
- Take note of colours used on packaging
Colour psychology is big in food marketing. Colours are often used to communicate, signify or induce different ideas. For example, Green signifies organic, natural, eco-friendly; whereas Yellow is used to stimulate appetite and is associated with good mood.
When you’re in the grocery store, take a moment to notice how the various colours appeal to you and what thoughts you have surrounding these foods. You may notice you’re drawn to a specific colour, even though it’s something you wouldn’t ordinarily purchase.
- Watch out for serving sizes
This is another nutrition label area to home in on. Sometimes small serving sizes are used to manipulate the nutrition information, whereas the amount we usually eat is a lot more. For example, an Oreo pack states the nutritional info for 1 biscuit, however most of us have more than 2.
- Understanding terminology
There are some terms on food labels and packaging that suggest a product is healthy, however that’s not always the case. Often, food manufacturers will use synonyms to hide the fact the product is not as healthy as it has been made out to be. Or terms are used to manipulate our thoughts into thinking the product is healthy. Common ones are:
- “No added sugar”: Naturally occurring sugar is high in the product which made it unnecessary to add more.
- “Low fat”: In the UK, this term means the product must have less than 3g of fat per 100g. Most of the time, where fat has been reduced, sugar has been added.
- “Natural”: This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice.
- “Gluten-free”: This term does not always imply the product is healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar.
- “Organic”: This is another one to look out for on packaged foods. Just because something is organic, doesn’t make it inherently healthy. For instance, organic chocolate is still chocolate.
Not all food that comes in a box, a can, or a bag is junk—but so much of it is. That’s why learning to read nutrition labels and recognising misleading labels are critical skills. Don’t let marketing schemes compromise your health!