Health experts agree on that. While they may debate the ideal daily intake of sugar, salt and fat, there is a consensus that everyone should, at least, know what they are eating.
That sounds straightforward, but food labels can be hard to interpret.
Researcher and health writer, Bill Statham, wrote The Chemical Maze because he was concerned about the health effects of synthetic chemicals in food and cosmetics.
In April, 2008, for instance, he was alarmed that synthetic colours, which had been removed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in Britain, were still in some foods on sale.
So, he has revised his book several times and you can download his shopper’s guide as an app and refer to it as you wheel your trolley around the supermarket.
But chemicals are only part of the story. A customer is likely to instinctively avoid products that contain colouring, preservatives, and ingredients that are impossible to pronounce.
Shopping becomes more fraught when the claims made in bold letters on the packaging — low-fat, source of vitamins, low in salt — mask other unhealthy ingredients listed in the small print.
But that is changing.
Under European Union regulations, it is now mandatory to declare nutrients, list salt instead of sodium (salt is made up of 40% sodium and 60% chloride), replace ‘calories’ with ‘energy’ and state any allergens.
But none of that is any good if we don’t read labels.
And not many Irish people do. A study by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that just a quarter of us read labels, while 44% said they rarely or never check what they are buying.
Consultant dietician, Aveen Bannon, says lack of time, information overload and focus on price all contribute to ‘label illiteracy’, but she warns that it has a big impact on the health and weight of the nation.
Last November, Bannon, in conjunction with Motivation Weight Management, devised a food-label talk because, as she says, “food-label education is the key to ensuring a healthier and leaner Ireland.
“The lack of knowledge in this area is incredible,” she says.
“I really do believe it will affect the health of the nation.”
Here is her guide to understanding food labels:
The shorter the better, as it’s less likely to contain artificial additives. Aim for less than 10.
Agave nectar, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, lactose, maltodextrin, sorbitol, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, sucrose, golden syrup, glucose, fructose syrup, sucrose and maltitol. “Remember, your body doesn’t care what the label says, it’s all just ‘sugar’.”
In terms of sugar, greater than 15g per 100g is high, while 5g per 100g is low.
One teaspoon of sugar is about 4g. With fibre, 6g/100g is high. “Aim for products that have more fibre and less sugar.”
Look at the quality rather than the quantity of calories. A low-fat biscuit may have the same number of calories as a piece of fruit, but the latter will offer fibre, vitamins and minerals, while the biscuit will not.
Fibre, protein, mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and Omega3 fatty acids. Just what you need for added energy.
Fat, saturated and trans fat, salt and sugar.
The recommended serving may not be the portion that you actually eat — it may be two or three times the serving size on the pack.