Understanding Food Nutrition Labels

Once you embark on the Banting lifestyle and decide to eliminate processed carbs and sugars from your diet, it won’t take long for you to realise that “food” isn’t what it seems and that manufacturers like to hide a lot of nasty stuff in their products.

Understanding what goes into the food you eat, will help you to make better eating choices.

In a world of convenience and instant gratification – the quickest way to fill the belly wins. And manufacturers are finding cheaper, easier ways to keep up with the demand.

Ready-meals, as a result, are a collection of ingredients that have been kept “fresh” by various mechanical means. One meal can contain ingredients from as many as 60 countries and can include upwards of 30 ingredients that have been kept at below freezing temperatures for months, and once defrosted and cooked, can be labelled as “fresh”.

Sometimes, ingredients don’t even resemble the original item – and are transported as powders, liquids, and dried or frozen goods, whatever is the cheapest. Eggs are even known to be transported out of their shells.

Most salad leaves, and chopped fruit and vegetables, are painted with a chemical solution to keep them looking fresh.

This chemical solution can pass as a processing aid and not an ingredient, so it doesn’t need to be declared on the food label.

Fake colouring is used to make dull food look appetising, emulsifiers are used to prevent ingredients from separating, and additives are used to prolong the shelf-life.

There are about 6000 food additives that act as flavourings, improvers, and bleaching and glazing agents that are used by manufacturers to “enhance” the quality of their products in one way or another.

Producers are coming up with new ways to “sugar-coat” food labels all the time and to replace complicated chemically sounding names with words that appear safe – so that you, as the consumer, won’t feel bad for buying it.

Some are even going as far as to produce cakes, for example, that don’t even contain eggs, butter or cream, but specially created lab-ingredients that can do the same job at a fraction of the price.

Just because something appears innocent on a food label, doesn’t mean it actually is – it may serve no nutritional purpose to you at all. The term “yeast-extract”, for example, has been used to replace E910 and is actually a derivative of MSG. The seemingly harmless word “starch,” signifies a highly processed ingredient that allows a product to withstand extreme temperatures during processing and can provide texture at the same time.

The bliss point – that magical combination of ingredients that tricks the brain into telling the body to eat more, is usually made up of a mixture of sugar, salt, starch, and seed oils. This formula is specifically produced by a team of “food scientists” as a tool that manufacturers use to sell more products. These ingredients are at their highly-refined, nutrient-lacking best and provide no benefit to you, except to make you want to eat more.

Do not believe everything you read on food packaging. The manufacturers’ main aim it to get you to buy the product. Their packaging is their advertising. Just because something says it’s “low-carb” doesn’t mean it is. It may just be lower in carbs compared to all other products, which is relative. Your insulin resistance should dictate how many carbs you eat.

Sweet potato crisps, for example, might seem Banting-friendly, but are dusted with rice flour, fried in processed oil, contain preservatives, and a whopping 56g of carbs per 100g.

The aim is to look for real food with the fewest ingredients and as little human intervention as possible.

How to read a food label:

The ingredients on a food label are listed in order of quantity. The first ingredient on the list is the one that makes up most of the product and so on, until the last ingredient.

There are over 50 known names for sugar. Manufacturers use these names to avoid placing sugar on the label, or to prevent it from being the first ingredient on the list. Some of these include corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, and lactose. They can appear scattered throughout the food label, so keep a look out for any sneaky inclusions.

Coconut blossom sugar is also not a healthy alternative to sugar – it reacts the same way in your body as sugar, as does honey, but honey is less processed.

Wheat and MSG are also very big no-nos to avoid because of how our bodies react to them.

When looking at the nutritional information on a food label always take note of the actual size of the product, the recommended serving size and the quantity per 100g/ml.

Look for the glycaemic carbohydrate amount per 100g and subtract any dietary fibre from that amount to give you the net carb value.

Total carbs less fibre = net carbs.

Depending on the ingredients, products that contain below 5g of net carbs per 100g are generally acceptable.

Deciphering this food label: glycaemic carbs (3g) – fibre (0g) = 3g net carbs per 100ml. One serving is 15ml or 1 Tbsp (15 / 100 = 0.15): 3 x 0.15 = 0.45g carbs. So per serving you will be having less than 1g carbs

A cup of this product would equate to 7.5g carbs (250 / 100 = 2.5 x 3)

Tips for reading food labels:

  • Always compare products: One make of double thick yoghurt might have lower carbs than another, the same with bacon and the sugar amount, etc
  • Never become complacent: manufacturers are known to change product ingredients on occasion so never stop reading food labels, even if you think you know the product
  • Avoid anything low fat or lite: when removing the fat, sugar is added to make it taste better
  • Avoid fruit flavoured yoghurts: choose unsweetened, plain double thick yoghurt as fruit flavoured yoghurts are very high in carbs
  • When reading olive oil labels make sure it doesn’t contain refined seed oils along with the olive oil
  • Avoid nuts roasted in seed oils: choose unsalted, raw nuts instead

In conclusion, eating food in its most natural state that you have chopped and cooked yourself and that you have bought from a trusted source is the best way to guarantee that you are getting the best fuel for your body. In the words of Jaime Oliver, “Real food doesn’t have ingredients; it is ingredients.”

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