One of my favourite things to do is spend an hour or two browsing the aisles of a health food shop like Whole Foods, Planet Organic or As Nature Intended, looking through the products, seeing what’s new, picking things up, flipping them over and reading the labels.
Do you read labels when you go grocery shopping, either in store or online? It can be a bit of a minefield, right? The good news is that in the UK and Europe, food labelling is strictly governed by law and manufacturers can’t just say what they want on labels. It’s illegal to have false information or misleading descriptions.
From understanding what the different food additives, emulsifiers, thickeners and flavour enhancers are, to figuring out how much added sugar is too much, to navigating calories, then adding in the different kite marks from the various standards associations, such as the Soil Association, Fairtrade, Organic (EU & USDA) and Freedom Food – it feels a bit mind blowing, doesn’t it?
I have a few rules of thumb that I follow when I buy food and read labels and I promise that with practice, it does get easier!
1. Shop along the edges of the supermarket and start with fresh produce first.
Fresh fruit and vegetables should have a single ingredient. If you can afford organic, great. In the UK, look for the Soil Association to help guide you through organic purchases, in the US, look for USDA Organic and in Europe, look for the EU Organic logo. If you can’t afford to do a full organic shop, try to buy the dirty dozen fruits and vegetables organic. Here’s Environmental Working Group’s most recent update to the dirty dozen and the clean fifteen.
And try to buy organic, grass-fed meat and dairy where possible.
2. Five ingredients or less.
When I buy packaged goods, I like foods that have 5 ingredients or less. Food labels appear on all processed foods, and the more ingredients, the more processed the food is. I’m not creating a strawman about processed food, as I know all food is technically processed is some way when it is changed from its original state. The difference is when I ‘process’ it in my kitchen, I know exactly what ingredients are being used and how it’s being ‘processed’ or er, cooked.
Food labels must list the ingredients in descending order of predominance by weight, so keeping this in mind helps you understand if something like a beetroot, carrot and apple juice is actually mostly apple!
3. Know your E numbers.
E numbers are the European Union’s code for substances added to foods to perform specific functions. Here is the UK Food Standards Agency’s exhaustive list of the colours, preservatives, antioxidants, sweetness, emulsifiers, stabilisers, flavour enhancers and other additives that are classed as E numbers.
It’s worth noting that not all E numbers are bad for you. Additives may be natural, nature identical or artificial, however many people tend to avoid E numbers, because there are so many of them and it’s easier than trying to decipher what each one is, what it’s made from and their effects on the body.
4. Know your additives and which additives to avoid.
Whole Foods have put together a wonderful list of ‘unacceptable ingredients for food‘, that includes additives and ingredients such as aspartame, bleached flour and hydrogenated fats. This is a good starter for ten. I also personally avoid carrageenan as there have been a few studies showing that it can cause inflammation and has been used to induce inflammation to study something completely unrelated.
5. Know the different names for sugar.
It’s not just glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose. Sugar comes in many forms and natural or not, your body responds to it in the same way – an insulin release to help break down the sugars into energy. This image has the names of 56 different types of sugar, and believe it or not, there are more to add to this list, like coconut sugar!
6. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it.
Until you understand exactly what the different food additives are, this is a good rule of thumb to follow.
7. Keep practicing.
Get into the habit of reading labels and understanding what’s in the food you eat. It will soon become an automatic reflex to lift, turn and read. If you want to read more about food labelling and additives, Joanna Blythman released a fascinating book last year called Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets.
Part 2 covering calories, reference nutrient intake and the traffic light system coming soon!