Nutrition labels, what should I look at

Nutrition labels, what should I look at?

Table of Contents

  • 1 After the hype caused by Nutriscore, let’s see what we really need to look at on a label and how to know if the product is healthy or not
    • 1.1 The nutriscore
    • 1.2 Other forms of labeling
    • 1.3 What to look at on nutrition labels
    • 1.4 How to know if a processed is healthy?
    • 1.5 No extremes

After the hype caused by Nutriscore, let’s see what we really need to look at on a label and how to know if the product is healthy or not

The nutriscore

Let’s start at the beginning: the Nutriscore. Surely in recent weeks you have read about Nutriscore and that has led you to become a little more interested in nutritional labels or at least in knowing what you eat. Since Monday, November 12, ——– But what is Nutriscore? In theory, it is a tool designed to facilitate the consumer’s interpretation of nutritional labels. In a visual way, it is intended to show if the product is healthy or not following a system known as “traffic light”. It consists of a scale of five colors that go from green (best nutritional quality) to red. These colors are associated with five letters (A / B / C / D / E) that make the code easier to read. The largest circle is the one that indicates the nutritional quality of the food.

The idea is that all products have this traffic light on the front, so that, in a quick way, we can identify if what we are going to buy suits us or not. The products are placed in one or another color following  an algorithm  that weights from 0 to 10, on the one hand, the amounts of the elements considered negative in a food – energy contribution, sugars, saturated fats and sodium – and, on the other, the positives: percentage of fruits and vegetables, grams of fiber and grams of protein. The number obtained by subtracting the total score of the second from the first gives rise to the final grade, the redder the higher it is.

And although this seems very useful and beneficial, I have my reluctance. I think that the only thing that is going to achieve (if it is really carried out, since at the moment it is not safe or mandatory) is to further confuse the population, since the criteria they use to tell us if they are healthy or not, does not they are the best.

Why is it not entirely useful?

  • Evaluate foods calorically – that assumes that caloric foods will be unhealthy and non-caloric foods will be healthy. Is a 99 kcal chocolate bar healthy for not having many calories? No.
  • Reference values ​​that are quite outdated are taken as a starting point, such as that you have to take an exact amount of carbohydrates or sugar per day, which may make you think that we need to cover X grams or percentage of sugar per day, as is the case with the vitamins.
  • It does not distinguish how much sugar is added and how much is intrinsic. You can see the difference in this video.
  • The fact that a product has fat penalizes. And without making a distinction between them. Total fat and saturated fat are penalized (when there are healthy saturated fats such as dairy) and trans fats are not taken into account: hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated, which there is overwhelming evidence that it is really harmful to the body organism.

Other forms of labeling

Other forms of nutritional labels had been proposed, such as the one in force in Chile since June 2016. This system consists of black octagons that indicate a high content of sugars, saturated fat, salt and calories. Although it also does not distinguish saturated from trans fats, it is much clearer, at least from my point of view.

With this system, the product is not classified as healthy or unhealthy, but simply, it informs you of how many unhealthy ingredients it contains. Very visually you can see that it does not have octagons, so it is probably healthy, or it is full, so it is surely a product with no nutritional interest.

And it certainly is effective. “According to the first  results , it is observed that the purchases of sugary drinks and sugary cereals decreased 25% and 9% respectively, the amount of sodium and sugars was reduced in important categories of packaged foods, people managed to better recognize the nutritional quality of packaged foods, and children had less exposure to advertising for “high in” foods.

Observed changes

The main changes that occurred between 6 and 10 months after the implementation of the law, which occurred in June 2016, are:

  1. Decreased exposure of preschoolers and adolescents  to “high in” food advertising on television.
  2. Decrease in the average sodium and sugar content  of packaged foods.
  3. People better recognize the nutritional quality of packaged foods  after incorporating warning stamps.
  4. Decrease in purchases  of “high in” beverages and breakfast cereals in households.

The results suggest that in a first stage the implementation of the labeling law has been associated with changes in food environments and in the behavior of people, particularly children, who are in line with improving the diet and health of the population ” . According to the study carried out by the interdisciplinary team of academics from INTA, Diego Portales University and the University of North Carolina, who are evaluating the first effects of the Food Labeling regulations that came into force in June 2016.

What to look at on nutrition labels

So, with one format or another, what will always be there and is what certainly gives us the information we need are the nutritional labels: the list of ingredients and the nutritional table, which do not work without each other.

The ingredient list

In the list, the ingredients are in  descending order   according to the amount that the product contains. Thus, the first  ingredient  is what the product contains the most and the last ingredient the least.

For a product to be healthy, in the list of ingredients …

  • There should be no more than 5 or 6 ingredients. Starting with the fifth or sixth  ingredient , you doubt if it is healthy. Therefore, the more  ingredients , the worse the quality, and the fewer the better.
  • Sugar or any of its synonyms (dextrose, glucose, syrup, honey, dextrins, hydrolysates …) should not be included.
  • Refined flours should not be included. Whole grains must have a minimum of 80% “whole grain flour of x” or “whole grain of x”.
  • Refined fats should not be included.
  • It should not have a lot of additives: preservatives, colorants … Above all make sure that it does not contain monosodium glutamate or monosodium glutamate .

In addition, all those products will be insane …

  • That they promote health habits in the labeling.
  • Whose main message does not correspond to the main ingredient. For example: Cocoa cream, first ingredient sugar.
  • In which a nutrient stands out. For example: source of protein, rich in iron, with 8 vitamins, …
  • That they are directed exclusively for someone in the family: “for children”, “for them”, “for the growth of your baby”, etc.

The nutritional table

To know how to interpret the nutritional table, if we can be guided by a traffic light, something like this:

But as I said before, we cannot be guided solely by that. Why? Well, mainly because of the labeling, it does not differentiate between intrinsic sugars and added sugars, nor does it do it with intrinsic fats and added fats. Let’s see it with an example:

We have a package of dried apricots (dried apricots) and on its nutritional label we can read:

  • Ingredients: 100% pitted apricots.
  • Nutritional values ​​per 100 grams: 241 kcal, 0g fat, of which 0g saturated, 62.6g carbohydrates of which 53.4g sugar , 7.3g fiber, 3g protein and 0.02g salt.

If we followed the indications of the traffic light this product would be insane, since it contains more than 10 grams of sugar for every 100 grams of product (much more in fact), but it is not. It is not because it is 100% intrinsic sugar, which is accompanied by its entire food matrix. So how do I know if a product that has more than 10 grams of sugar is healthy or not? Looking at your ingredient list. In this case, we have as ingredients only apricot, on the other hand, if sugar, glucose syrup or any synonym appears in the list of ingredients, it would be necessary to wonder how much of that sugar is intrinsic and how much is added. You can see how to find out in this video. The same happens with fats, a package of raw or roasted nuts will have more than 20 grams of total fat, but they will be intrinsic fats of the nuts and not added and much less refined.

Therefore we could conclude that this traffic light is useful in reference to additives : sugars, fats and salt.

How to know if a processed is healthy?

We are also going to clear up the whole mess with the ultra-processed, the healthy processed and the unhealthy. Let’s first see what each one is. Ultra-processed products are industrial preparations of ready-to-eat or drink products, in which refined ingredients and extracted from conventional raw materials predominate. These ingredients are often for industrial use and we cannot find them in the home kitchen (palm oil, unconventional sweeteners and sugars, casein, additives …). Therefore we can assure that all ultra-processed ones are unhealthy, because they are made from non-recommended ingredients. We must avoid or limit them as much as possible. These ingredients are those that I mentioned above that should not appear in the list of ingredients to consider the product suitable:

  • Added sugars
  • Refined flours
  • Poor quality and / or hydrogenated fats
  • Salt

So if you see any of these ingredients on the list … bad!

However, you do not have to put everything in the same bag, because there are also processed ones, and in these there may be healthy options and other options that are not so healthy. The processed ones are raw materials that have undergone some technological process: cutting, washing, cooking, crushing, grinding, frozen … They may also have some other ingredient added, but the main raw material will continue to be: such as salt, government liquid (preserves) , bacterial strains (yogurt), some preservative, water …

To know if it is a healthy or unhealthy processed, just read the nutritional label. Looking at the list of ingredients, those that have one or more of the above ingredients in notable quantities, will not be healthy. And they are not always industrial, at home we process food continuously, and not everything homemade is healthy. Some examples of healthy processed foods: Pineapple in its juice, unsweetened applesauce, canned tomato, bagged lettuce, brik gazpacho, oat flakes, whole wheat pasta, frozen hake slices, canned tuna, boiled chickpeas, unsweetened peanut butter, tofu, plain yogurt, cheese, pasteurized milk, toasted hazelnuts …

No extremes

So, we do not have to eat only raw materials, nor is everything processed unhealthy. We must eat a healthy diet, yes, based on raw materials: vegetables, vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts … but without the need to constantly question whether or not this is “real food / real food”. Nor do we have to demonize everything we find in the supermarket, the processed ones, since many times they get us out of a hurry, such as cereal cups or frozen vegetables. Let’s put the extremes aside and just enjoy the food, reading the label and knowing what we eat.

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