As with many areas of modern life, the labels on food items have become more and more complicated and information overload is a daily occurrence. It’s likely to get even more complicated as talk of ‘eco-labelling’ is being discussed which would detail farming methods, carbon emissions and other environmental data. This might seem like a good idea, but I am sceptical if this will help consumers or producers or the planet. For a start, to have a label then there needs to be packaging in the first place and already far too much is non-recyclable. But we must be practical, and many foods do require packaging of some kind so what exactly should be included and what is a complete waste of ink??
Country of origin – for fresh food like fruit and vegetables always a good start if it says UK or British, even nicer if it’s been grown in the county you actually live in or one of your close neighbours. But British bananas are never going to happen so get savvy about which foods are indigenous to other countries, like Spanish oranges, and support those that have fewer food miles or are part of the Fairtrade system www.fairtrade.org.uk
Ingredients List – this is key as every food or additive must be declared by law and you can decide what you feel comfortable consuming. They are listed in descending order, so the biggest amount comes first (often this is water!) right down to the small doses. Just think about what you would expect the ingredients to be if you made the same thing at home in your own kitchen and compare. I actually did this recently with a very well-known brand of mayonnaise;
rapeseed oil, egg, egg yolk, vinegar, salt, lemon juice, paprika YES water OK sugar?? calcium disodium EDTA – don’t have any of that in your kitchen? Me either…
Calcium disodium ethylenediaminetetraacetate is used as a preservative and flavouring in manufactured foods, but there are limits on the amount that can be used. If your happy with that, fine, but if not then look at alternative products that contain more familiar ingredients.
Allergens & Gluten – foods that contain gluten or known allergens, such as milk, egg, soya or nuts, are legally required to highlight these in the ingredients list. Remember to check EVERY time, even if buying a previously purchased product as sometimes recipes are reformulated and can become unsuitable.
Organic – organic farming principles are the foundation of sustainable agriculture and is accredited by the soil association www.soilassociation.org and EU Organic Regulation www.ecocert.com. Any food produce that is labelled as organic and have the appropriate logos, see websites, will have the “highest possible standards of animal welfare, environmental and wildlife protection” and buying these foods whenever possible directly supports this gold standard of farming.
Recyclable – many supermarkets are now collecting plastic food packaging that can be recycled in store, so always check the label and keep it out of land fill.
Nutrition – so this is odd, a nutritionist not liking nutrition labelling?? Well, yes, it’s pretty pointless. Foods aren’t eaten in isolation, many foods don’t come with a label attached, and no one, single food will ever have the ‘perfect’ compliment of nutrients, that’s why we need to eat a VARIETY of DIFFERENT FOODS.
Currently labels contain the number of calories (energy), fat, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugars, fibre, protein and salt listed per 100g then as a % of an adult requirement. I have had to do my fair share of nutritional calculations throughout my career but for sick or nutritionally compromised patients, but are we seriously suggesting that this needs to be done for everyday eating?
My contempt at listing the calorie content of foods has previously been addressed in my previous blog Calories, Gut Bacteria & Fat Mice – Environmental Nutrition , but I also think it is not helpful to highlight carbohydrates, protein, sugar or salt. Carbohydrates are needed to fill us up and provide our brains and bodies with glucose. The Western diet already contains much higher amounts of protein than is required for normal maintenance so generally doesn’t need to be monitored or boosted. Fats are hugely important ( read more on this here Mental Health, Brain Fats & Seafood – Environmental Nutrition ) but not all fats are equal, and labelling hasn’t helped the confusion. And here’s a little tip, if something tastes savoury it probably has salt in it and if something tastes sweet it probably has sugar in it, no need to look at the label.
Fibre is the one exception to this rule as most of us don’t eat nearly enough dietary fibre to keep ourselves in optimum health. But here’s the thing….there is no upper limit so you can really go for it whatever the label says!!
Seriously though, my biggest criticism of food labelling is that fact that there is no mention of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, antioxidants or essential fatty acids (micronutrients) which are the nutrients that I am most concerned about regarding their effect on human health. I’m not suggesting that these need to be included on labels either, but the public health message needs to focus more on micronutrients rather than the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) if we want to improve the mental and physical health of the nation.
Best Before Dates – these dates are there to guide you, after which a food may not be in its best condition, but it does NOT harm you. They are not to be confused with use-by-dates, which are printed on perishable foods that could cause food poisoning if not heeded. Unfortunately, many people get the two mixed up and throw away perfectly good food and this is the ugliest truth about food labelling.
9.5 million tonnes of all food produced in the UK is spoiled or wasted every year and 71% of this from people’s homes, costing us £13 billion (www.wrap.org.uk).
So, smell it, taste it …..you’ll know if it’s gone off, otherwise eat it Peel off those outer lettuce leaves that have gone a bit slimy Roast those bendy carrots or make them into a soup Stir that yoghurt that has gone a bit watery
Food is a precious resource that we need to value and to this end, food labelling should be a help not a hindrance.