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Don’t be fooled by ‘natural’ or ‘lite’ on food labels: DR MEGAN ROSSI exposes gap between the promises on packaging and the reality

How often are you being manipulated when you go shopping? Probably more than you realise — especially when you’re buying food.

I’ve spent much of my career scrutinising food labelling, so I’ve become wise to the gap between the promises on packaging and the reality.

Manufacturers go to great lengths to paint a wholesome picture using appealing buzzwords such as ‘natural’ or ‘homestyle’ to seduce you into thinking their products are healthy. But the reality is they aren’t as good for you as you’re led to believe.

So today I want to expose the main label offenders so that you know what you’re really buying.

How often are you being manipulated when you go shopping? Probably more than you realise — especially when you’re buying food, writes Dr Megan Rossi (pictured)

Sweetened with…

Did you know? 

If caffeine makes you anxious or jittery, blame your genes. It may be that you produce less of a liver enzyme called CYP1A2, which dictates how efficiently you break down caffeine, so you have more of it sticking around in your body. 

One of my biggest bugbears is when manufacturers add an exotic-sounding form of sugar to make it sound better for you.

Whether it’s coconut blossom nectar, brown rice syrup or honey, these are all types of sugar, and they typically have the same effect on blood sugar levels as standard sugar, nitroglycerin zofran causing a similar rapid rise and crash — which soon leaves you craving more sweet food.

Even fruit-based sugars such as date syrup do this. If you ate whole dates, then you would get the benefit of plant chemicals, as well as fibre (which reduces the blood sugar spike), but the syrup has had most of these removed.

Food sweetened with fruit juices is no different — your body will recognise it as sugar, as will the bacteria on your teeth that contribute to tooth decay.

And don’t assume that ‘no added sugar’ foods are healthier: some brands that claim to be good for ‘gut health’ contain artificial sweeteners, which animal studies suggest may be detrimental to it.

Per portion

A favourite ruse of some manufacturers is to advertise a low calorie count per portion. But the portion size is often so minuscule that even the most bird-like eater would still be hungry afterwards.

I’ve nearly fallen victim to this, picking up a snack bar with a ‘100 calories per portion’ claim, only to discover the 40g bar is considered 1.5 portions. Don’t be fooled: check the nutrition panel for the portion size.

A favourite ruse of some manufacturers is to advertise a low calorie count per portion

To anyone wanting to cut back on cholesterol, a food (such as a bag of crisps) claiming that it’s free of this sounds like a gift.

But when you eat foods containing cholesterol, your body compensates by cutting back on the amount made in the liver, reducing the overall amount circulating in your blood. So there’s no great benefit to cholesterol-free foods.

A better bet is to check for saturated fat, as when you eat foods high in certain types, such as palm fat, it blocks the work of liver receptors that remove ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol from the blood.

Light, lite or reduced

If a food is described as ‘light’, look carefully to determine what it’s lighter in. People often assume this is calories, but by law the requirement is only that it has 25 to 30 per cent lower levels of one nutrient (whether that’s fat, salt, calories) than normal.

So crisps, for example, might be low in salt, yet have just as much, if not more, calories or saturated fat as standard crisps to make up for the loss of flavour.

Natural

Manufacturers push this term to make unhealthy food sound more wholesome, but it just means that no artificial elements have been added and says nothing about how healthy it is.

Confectionery might be sold as ‘free from artificial colours’ but still be 80 per cent sugar. And just because the colour is derived from a plant, it doesn’t make it good for you.

Immune-supporting

This tag, which has become more commonplace since Covid, can legally be added to labels of foods with certain levels of nutrients (often strategically added) — including vitamins B6 and C — that are important for immunity.

But most of us get plenty of these vitamins: B6 is found in poultry, beef, fruit and veg, and vitamin C is present in many foods (even potatoes). Any extra we take in will simply be excreted. What’s more, these foods are often loaded with additives and sugar, which may harm your health more than the added vitamins help it.

If A food is labelled as ‘organic’, at least 95 per cent of its agricultural ingredients (i.e. from crops or livestock) must be organic, but it can still contain certain food additives.

One is carrageenan, or E407, which is added as a thickener to yoghurts and plant-based milks. Despite being allowed in organic products, carrageenan is under investigation after studies found it could damage the gut lining.

So if buying organic, select your goods with care. Organic fresh fruit and vegetables are probably worth it, if you can afford them, but don’t think the organic tag is a guarantee of wholesome healthiness.

If a cake is 70 per cent sugar or crisps are heavily salted, it doesn’t matter if they’re organic or not — they won’t do you much good.

Vegan

Vegan has become synonymous with ‘healthy’ in many people’s minds, and food manufacturers have cottoned on to this, churning out all sorts of vegan alternatives from mayonnaise to mince. But when it comes to vegan meat in particular, it can contain many highly processed ingredients and additives that recreate the texture and flavour of real meat — so you may find a high-quality meat sausage is actually better for you.

My checklist:

When buying processed food, ensure the first three ingredients (they’re always listed from greatest to smallest by weight) are whole foods — i.e. ingredients you’d eat on their own, such as oats, tomato, onion or cheese. This limits the proportion of the product that comes from refined ingredients.

If something claims to be blueberry flavoured, for example, check how high up the list of ingredients blueberries are. To be anywhere near a beneficial amount it needs to be close to the top.

For foods claiming to be high in protein, check whether this comes from whole foods such as nuts, seeds or legumes, or from refined ingredients such as soy protein isolate, which are not as beneficial for your health.

Try this: Gut-loving Greek baked beans

Who would have thought eating beans to lower your cholesterol could taste this good? Make a double batch and freeze for busy days.

Serves 4

  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tbsp tomato puree
  • 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
  • 3 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 250ml water, boiled
  • 400g tin butter beans, drained and rinsed
  • 400g tin mixed beans, drained and rinsed
  • 150g chard or spinach, chopped 
  • 50g Kalamata olives
  • 35g feta, crumbled, to serve

Heat oven to 180c/160c fan/gas 4. Heat oil in ovenproof pot, then add onion and garlic with a pinch of salt and pepper. Gently cook for ten minutes, until onion is soft.

Stir in tomato puree and cook for one minute, then add tomatoes, cinnamon, nutmeg, smoked paprika, oregano and boiling water, and bring to a simmer.

Stir in the beans, greens and olives and then put into the oven for 20 minutes, or until thickened and bubbling. Top with crumbled feta.

AskMegan 

Should I eat dark chocolate with 49 per cent cocoa solids and 51 per cent sugar, or a brand with 70 per cent cocoa solids, 0.8 per cent sugar but 29.2 per cent polyols [a low-calorie sweetener].

One of your articles said chocolate with at least 70 per cent cocoa solids is best. But is it a good trade-off to get the cocoa by swapping the sugar for polyols (I’ve tried darker chocolate, but the taste is too bitter)? I eat 100g to 150g of chocolate per week.

Douglas Arnold, Oxford.

You’re correct in thinking that the higher the proportion of cocoa, the greater the benefits — thanks to cocoa being rich in flavanols, a plant chemical that’s good for heart health. A review of studies published in the journal Nutrients in 2017 found that consuming chocolate three times per week (30g per serving) was linked to a 9 per cent reduced risk of heart disease.

In terms of polyols (or sugar alcohols), they’re generally considered better than artificial sweeteners because we consume them on a daily basis, albeit in small amounts, in many fruits and vegetables.

But when added into food at higher doses, they can trigger gas and bloating in some people. This is because they’re not completely absorbed in the gut and can cause excess fermentation when broken down by your gut bacteria.

However, a 30g portion is likely to be well tolerated. Over time it’s worth training your tastebuds to enjoy the standard 70 per cent cocoa chocolate (with small amounts of sugar), and moving up to 90 per cent. It’s remarkable how your tastebuds can learn to enjoy the bitter notes — it takes around two weeks for them to make the transition.

Eating dark chocolate with a hot drink can also increase the sweetness profile (possibly because it activates taste receptors).

You’re correct in thinking that the higher the proportion of cocoa, the greater the benefits — thanks to cocoa being rich in flavanols, a plant chemical that’s good for heart health

Contact Dr Megan Rossi

Mail [email protected] or write to Good Health, Daily Mail, 9 Derry Street, London, W8 5HY — include contact details. Dr Megan Rossi cannot enter into personal correspondence. Replies should be taken in a general context; always consult your GP with health worries.

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