Look at the Ingredients List First
When you’re shopping, how much attention do you pay to food labels? If you eat mainly whole foods and make all your meals from scratch, then you know what goes into your food. But processed and packaged foods – which include ready meals, tinned foods, sauces, breads, snack foods etc. – can contain some surprising ingredients and will probably have an imperfect balance of calories, sugar, protein, fat and salt.
The main things I would advise my clients to look for to ensure that they are buying healthy food. If you are concerned about what goes into your food, it can be best to look at the ingredients list first rather than the nutritional breakdown. Check the following:
How many ingredients does it have?
Generally speaking, food products that have the fewest ingredients are better for you, because the ingredients they do contain are more likely to be natural rather than modified or synthetic. For example, a natural fruit and nut bar may only contain dates, raisins and cashew nuts, but some cereal bars may contain 20 or more ingredients, including several kinds of sugar or artificial sweeteners, flavourings, and emulsifiers. A curry ready meal may contain only meat, vegetables, oil, yoghurt and spices – as it would if you made it at home. But a less healthy version can contain 30 or more ingredients, including sugar, maize starch, flavourings, stabilizers and emulsifiers. Which would you rather eat?
Do the Ingredients sound like chemicals?
Do you know what all the ingredients are? Whether a product has a long or short list of ingredients, if they are a long list of chemicals, they are best avoided. For example, ingredients in a popular brand of crisps include sodium diacetate, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sulphite ammonia caramel. Some of these additives have known adverse effects for some people: MSG, for example, has been linked to headaches, irritability, depression, and worsening of asthmatic symptoms. For other substances, the effects of consuming a lot of it are simply not known. To play safe, choose products with natural ingredients.
Look out for different forms of sugar and starches
We are now aware that sugar is a major culprit when it comes to poor health – more so than fat. Some processed foods can contain several different forms of it, disguising how much sugar the product actually contains. They can include glucose, dextrose, fructose, honey, syrup (of any kind), malt and cane sugar. These sugars are not only found in snacks and junk foods, but also in tinned beans and vegetables, bread, sauces and dressings, ready meals and even in prepared meats. Avoid them if you can!
Some starches can be a problem too, as they are quickly broken down into sugar by your body’s digestive juices, having the same effects. They can include maltodextrin, maize starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, and any type of flour. Starches are not a problem if they are balanced with proteins and healthy fats; but when several of them are added together, in addition to sugar, and with very little protein (see below), this can spell disaster for your blood sugar balance.
Does it contain unhealthy fats?
Rather than the total fat content, it can be better to look at the type of fats. Hydrogenated fats in particular are bad news, so make sure it doesn’t contain any of these – or margarine, which is often made from them. It’s also wise to avoid too much vegetable oil in processed foods. Although vegetable oils were previously thought to be a healthier alternative to saturated or animal fats, this is now thought not to be the case. They contain a lot of omega-6 fats, which can create an imbalance with omega-3, potentially leading to health problems. Those to avoid in excess include sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, or simply generic ‘vegetable oil’.
Understanding the Nutritional Information:
Check the serving size
First of all, make sure you are aware of the serving size given on the label and how this relates to the nutritional data. For example, a serving of a pizza may be just a quarter or even a sixth, rather than the whole thing. A portion of cereal is often just 30g – no more than two or three tablespoons – rather than a full bowl. Bear this in mind when working out how much calories, sugar, protein and so on you will get if you eat more or less than the stated serving size.
Look at the calories per serving
It’s difficult to give a figure for how many calories a meal or a snack should contain, because this also depends on how many meals you eat per day, and your individual nutritional requirements. But in general to maintain a healthy weight, women need to limit their calorie intake to around 2000 per day, and men around 2500. So if you are eating three meals a day with a couple of snacks, a meal should contain no more than around 500 to 600 calories in total, and a snack 100 to 200 calories.
As well as making sure the ingredients don’t list lots of types of sugar, it is worth looking at the total sugar content per serving or per 100g (usually found under the carbohydrate amount). The traffic light rating system states that any food containing over 12.5 g of sugar per 100 g is high in sugar. In general, the less sugar the better.
Unless you eat a serving of meat or fish twice a day, it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein. Although needs can vary, the average person needs around 50 to 60 grams of protein per day for optimal health – so around 15 to 20 g with every meal.
When looking at ready meals, or any packaged foods that make up the main part of a meal, also check the carbohydrate to protein ratio – ideally, it should be no more than 2:1. So if the product contains 30 g of carbohydrates, it should contain at least 15 g of protein. This is because the protein can slow down the absorption of carbohydrates (sugars and starches) into your blood, helping to keep your blood sugar balanced.
In food products that contain grains or vegetables, such as breads, crackers, cereals, tinned foods or ready meals, the fibre content is worth looking at. Fibre supports healthy digestive function, can help to balance blood sugar (like protein) and can even help to maintain normal cholesterol levels. We need a minimum of 18 g per day, but ideally closer to 25 g. So depending on whether the food is going to be a part of a meal or a whole meal, look for between 3 and 6g of fibre per serving.
Salt can be a big problem when it comes to processed foods. Our natural diet, based on fresh and whole foods, should contain more potassium than sodium. But as sodium (salt) is added to most processed and packaged foods, it’s easy to get too much and knock out the balance with potassium. We know that this can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. So if you eat a lot of processed or packaged foods, it is best to choose products that have as little salt as possible – 0.3g per 100g is considered low according to the traffic light system, and over 1.5g is considered high.