What's really in our food?

What's really in our food?

We’re always told to try and eat well. But once we’re in the supermarket to do our weekly shop it can be difficult to know if we’re really making the right choices. Labels can be misleading and then there are the food scandals, such as when horsemeat was found in burgers in 2013.

The good news, though, is that there are some simple tactics you can use to get only the best-quality foods in your supermarket trolley. We asked dietician Lucy Jones, from the British Dietetic Association, and the BBC’s Eat Well for Less programme, to share the best-kept secrets of the food shop, and help you get back in control of  what you eat. 

Learn the label lingo

Looking at labels, you should mainly compare salt, sugar, total fat and saturated fat. It can be useful to try to memorise or write down what’s low and high for each of these so you can spot the healthier product in the shops.

Total fat: More than 17.5g of fat per 100g is high. 3g of fat or less per 100g is low
Saturated fat: More than 5g of saturated fat per 100g is high. 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g is low
Sugars: More than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g is high. 5g of total sugars or less per 100g is low
Salt: More than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
is high. 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium) is low
From NHS Choices

Lucy recommends taking an extra-hard look at labels on so-called ‘diet’ foods. “During the Eat Well for Less series, we discovered many ‘diet’ biscuits were just a smaller size and, in some cases, actually contained higher levels of sugar and fat. But because the portion was smaller, they were able to say they had lower fat per portion and so label it as a ‘diet’ product.”

Beware of ‘clean labelling’

Lots of us are cautious of foods containing E numbers and additives, but many companies get round this fear factor by calling them fancier names, in a process called ‘clean labelling’.  So instead of listing a string of added ingredients, they give them a more a more harmless-sounding name, ‘rosemary extract’, for example.

“It’s important to remember all E numbers and preservatives have been approved by the FSA for safety,” says Lucy. “However, renaming things with nasty-sounding names is a popular tactic. For example, sugar is often listed as organic honey, agave nectar or unrefined sugar, which is completely meaningless. At the end of the day they’re all just sugar.

“Many companies also list generic names such as ‘flavourings’, because they aren’t legally obliged to say which exact flavourings they use.  This means people with food allergies or intolerances haven’t a clue what these ‘flavourings’ could be and have to avoid them.”

Watch out for fishy business

There have been rumblings in the press about certain tinned fish companies not delivering the ethical product they promise on their labels. “If you want to buy fish that’s been sustainably sourced, look for a label from the Marine Stewardship Council which guarantees sustainability.”

Then there’s the question of whether this tinned fish is as healthy for us as fresh. “While tinned salmon keeps most of its nutrients, making it a really good, affordable option, tinned tuna loses its omega-3 fatty acids in the canning process. It’s then only useful as a low-fat protein food rather than as the nutritious meal you might expect from oily fish.”

When to go organic

“Look for the organic stamp on foods, which means almost all – usually about 95 per cent – of ingredients have been approved as organic and certified by an organisation such as the Soil Association,” says Lucy. “I know it’s not always affordable to buy everything organic, but I’d definitely recommend buying meat and certain fruit and veg organic. 

“As a nutritionist, I try to encourage people to eat less meat but of a higher quality, and the best way to do that is to buy organic. These meats don’t contain routine antibiotics and the animal welfare standards are better, so there’s an ethical argument for organic meat, too.

“Choose organic fruit and vegetables with thinner skins, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, peaches and potatoes. These absorb more pesticides in non-organic farming than hard-skinned produce such as mangoes
and avocados.”

Supermarket brands can be healthier!

When it comes to food basics, such as bread and orange juice, going for the brand you’ve always bought, or a household name, isn’t always the best choice.

“Often supermarket saver options have lower sugar and salt content than well-known brands. This might be so they can save costs on added ingredients, or because they’re not trying to perfect the flavour like pricier brands are,” says Lucy.

“With bread, both supermarkets and big brands have signed up to voluntary measures to reduce the salt they add to their foods. This means supermarket-own products can often give you the same nutritional benefit as the branded option, but for a cheaper price.

“It’s similar with orange juice where there’s generally little difference in Vitamin C content between premium fresh products and cheaper juices from concentrate.

“The main thing is not to be fooled by fancy packaging and compare nutritional info.”

The facts on packaging and preserving

Long-life products save money in the long run, but are they nutritionally as good as fresh?

“With things such as frozen vegetables and long-life milk, generally they’re just as good as fresh,” says Lucy. “With processed and preserved meats, however, they have been linked in some studies to certain cancer risks so are best avoided in favour of fresh meat.”

“You have to be careful with foods in plastic packaging, too, which can leach a chemical called BPA  – linked to obesity – into your food. To limit your exposure to these plastic chemicals, buy a proper water bottle instead of using plastic ones and never microwave a ready meal in the container, which could leak plastics into your food. Instead transfer the meal into a heat-proof glass dish before heating.”

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