Thursday, 19 March 2015


Healthy life styleBe honest: how much time do you spend reading food labels? Ten seconds? None?

We know we should, as this is the base of healthy food choices. Food labels are a source of useful information, but they are often confusing, and they contain so much information concentrated into tables and small prints that it is hard to read them.


Who has the time to read and understand food labels?

We are just happy to get shopping done as quickly as possible - specially if we have our kids with us. I personally do not like shopping, it just makes me so tired. It is not a surprise.
During our shopping we are bombarded by informations, there are ads everywhere, marketing tricks and sale information, plus we are looking for price tags and bargains - while we have to keep an eye on our children, explain them things, educate them or just keep them under control...
Who has the time to read and understand food labels?

We know we should read those labels, as they would help us to make right food choices. Actually the small prints tell us what we exactly eating as product names and nutrition and healthy claims can

So what can a busy mum do?

#1 Inspect regular shopping items at home

Probably you think, "oh it is too late to check food labels after shopping." However this is really important in the case of regular items. The first step to make our basic, everyday shopping items more healthy. The products what we consume more - like bread or cheese - give the base of our healthy diet. Here in the UK each year 99 bread products are purchased per household. This is a significant amount. So let's start reviewing our every-day purchase items and swap them to healthier alternatives.
If you do not have a chance to do it in the shop then it is better to do it after purchasing than never. So next time when you are shopping you know what you are looking for.
It does not matter if you swap your food choices just 1-2 at time. Do not forget, all changes can generate some kind of resistance, so do not forget explain your motives to your family or - what is even better, - get them involved.
Once you find good quality, healthy products, stick to them.

#2 Use at-a-glance labelling system

At-a-glance labelling systems are meant to help our healthy food choices, so use them. Everybody knows that reading food labels takes a lot of time, so these little traffic light coloured labels can reduce time what we spend reading the nutritional informations. Nutritional information list is assuming the knowledge behind the data that we know how much is the healthy limit. But not everyone is a qualified nutritionist, so I think the traffic light system is a clever way to help our right choices.

However, it needs some understanding:

- High levels of nutrients are coloured red, medium level coloured as orange and low amount of nutrients are coloured as green. This make possible to compare to similar product to each other. However it does not tell how nutritious the food is. this can mislead us thinking that nutritious food should be avoided, because it has some red lights on the label.
- Nutritional information appeared on traffic lights is subject to either per 100g or per serving size. You can find the information below or around the label.

- There are the main health

- Sometimes calories per serving size include the calories of the recommended additional ingredient too. But not always. For example on the photo below the calorie content of the porridge is calculated with water. Obviously if you make your porridge with milk, you have to add the calories of 270 ml milk to the porridge to get the correct number.

- The traffic light system is based on recommended amount of fat/sugar/salt for an average adult and this data is not relevant for other age groups like toddlers.

#3 Have a quick look at the ingredients list

Ingredients list can tell us a lot. Sometimes product names are just a clever marketing tool and reading the ingredients list show what is really inside the package. for example yoghurt coated raisins do not contain yoghurt at all... 
The ingredients are in descending order by weight in the list. For example if sugar is at the beginning of the list that means that the product is high in sugar. We can also find out if this sugar is natural or added sugar in the product. 
I personally do not like to buy products with with lots of artificial flavouring and preservatives - even if they are approved by the law and proved harmless. Bread for me is not more than flour, water, yeast, some salt and probably some seeds. No enzymes, soya or preservatives. If I do not know what is one or more ingredients on the list, I leave the product in the supermarket. I do not buy products with preservatives what I can make myself from fresh ingredients in a minute. For example I never buy ready made guacamole. It is a fresh vegetable dip, can be made from avocado, onion, lime, tomato and some chilli within a minute. How could be these ingredients stay fresh in the plastic bottle for months? Just check the label on the ready made guacamole, there is the answer.
It is depend on you how much artificial additive let into your kitchen. 

#4 Do not fall for the marketing tricks

Checking carefully the food label on a new product before buying it is a must.
There are very clever names and nutritional and health claims on the package of food products. I  am always suspicious with these. Specially when I buy the product first time. I know the feeling of enthusiasm that you find something new and attractive. I usually spend a (relatively) lot of time at the cereal aisle. There are very attractive cereals, the product names, the design, the list of health benefits always make me stop. I love granola and muesli. But after checking the ingredients list, usually I find that they are usually high in added sugar and artificial additives and  none of them comes any close to my home made granola.
Be specially careful if something is labelled "for kids". This addressing does not mean that the products is free from additives, so have a quick look at the ingredients list. Same for "low fat" and "low sugar" products.
I think it is important to know that marketing and advertising is all about sale and not about data. If we want to make right choices we need to make decisions based on the data provided on the food label and not based on the product names and claims on the packaging. This makes us smart shoppers.

#5 Check nutritional information

This is the hard part. Nutritional information is boring and we need to think. Well, it takes time to become an expert label reader. I do read a lots of nutritional information but I would not say I can see through them easily.

Nutritional information is no more than listed data. You need to know what is high or low for each group.

What you need to know to understand nutritional information:

Total fat
High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g

Saturated fat
High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

Most of the time we have to find the right balance. For example low-fat products are usually high in sugar. 

#6 Make your own choices

Do not buy products, just because others buy it. Just because so many people buy it, and this is the "nations favourite", does not mean that it is healthy, and there is no better option for you. Not every family is the same, find the products that is the best for your family. 
Do not believe ads, do your homework and read the information on the back of the product, and buy products, what are really good for you and for your family.

I am lucky, my family is very open-minded - okay my 3-years-old is a bit of challenging, but compared to other toddlers, she is open for new tastes too. So they are ready to accept new, nutritious products. I think it is important to teach children early that there is always new to discover. I try to offer them a variety in taste and texture and they take it as an adventure. Sometimes they do not like things - but it is okay, it is part of the game, and I accept that they have their own taste. The point is that they are happy to try new things. I believe, as a mum it is my job to show them the healthy options and guide them how to make right choices later in their life.

So, how can a busy mum make healthy food choices?

The key is to get the whole picture of the product putting together the information provided on the label: at-a-glance labelling, nutritional information and ingredients list. This takes time, but doing it regularly makes us an expert. 
Checking labels help us to get an overall picture of the product. However we should not exclude all products which have a red light, because they are high in fat or sugar. Red light does not mean that the product is unhealthy, it can be a very nutritious product and should be part of a balanced diet. For example nearly all cheese is high in fat and salt (as this is the preservative in cheese), but they of course are part of a healthy diet. So the key again: balancing out our diet and being conscious consumers.

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