Food labels often say 'low-fat' or 'high-fibre' but that does not mean they are healthy products. You might think foods labelled 'no added sugar' are better for you, but take extra care as packaging can be extremely misleading.

The multitude of labels on food packaging can wrong-foot even the most health conscious consumers. If you are keen to increase your fibre intake, you might think cereal labeled "high fibre" will do the trick, but how much salt and sugar are you pouring into your breakfast bowl, too? You might opt for "lite" crisps believing they are low in fat, but they could contain more calories than the standard version of another brand.

EC regulations have changed in recent years to stop food manufacturers making wild health claims on packaging, but some experts believe consumers are still being misled. Professor Mike Rayner, an expert in population health at Oxford University, says in the Daily Telegraph that the EU has “failed miserably” to come up with a labeling system to help consumers make healthy choices. He would like to see packaging carry a nutrition profile, such as the system used in Australia, which rates a food’s overall healthiness on a scale from ½ a star to 5 stars, with high-starred foods considered the better nutritional choice.

“Labeling and health claims on packaging are not good guides to healthiness,” Professor Rayner says in yesterday's Telegraph. “If the packet says the product is high in fibre or contains whole grains or has added vitamins and minerals, that doesn’t really mean anything, because the product might also contain high levels of salt or sugar or saturated fat. These terms create a halo effect around products to make them appear healthy when they might not be. “ He added that many food manufacturers opted not to use traffic light labels that indicate low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt.

Charlotte Stirling-Reed, a registered nutritionist and media expert with the Nutrition Society, urges consumers to avoid packaged food when possible or else read nutrition labels carefully – not the front of packets – before buying. “Most food packages are misleading. As consumers, we often want to believe that if something is making a health claim or even that its images denote health, it’s going to be good for us,” she says. “It's hard to understand that some of these 'healthy options' are nothing but very clever marketing. It's so important to look beyond the front of packet and check out what's actually in the ingredients list before making the final decision.”

What about the sugar habit? - Is it a matter of Light or lite? The truth is that to be 'light' it must contain 30 per cent less fat or calories than the standard version, but does not mean the product is low fat or healthy. For example, ‘light/lite’ crisps can contain the same amount of fat or calories as the standard version of another brand. A product light on fat can also be heavy on calories by way of added sugar.

What about 'Low-fat'? - The truth is that it must contain less than 3g of fat per 100g for food or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for drinks. But this does not mean the product is healthy or low-calorie. Many low fat foods and drinks are loaded with added sugar and can be high in calories.

What about 'No added sugar'? - The truth is that it must have no sugar or sweetener added, but that does not mean the product is low in sugar or sugar-free. The product could contain natural sugars, such as those found in dairy and fruit, in which case the label should state ‘contains naturally occurring sugars’. These products are often high in fat and/or calories.

What about 'Fat-free'? - The truth is that it must contain less than 0.5g fat per 100g, but again, this does not mean the product is healthy or low-calorie. The claim sometimes appears on products that do not contain fat anyway, such as sweets, and can disguise high levels of unhealthy ingredients such as sugar. Nutritionists point out that fat-free is not necessarily desirable anyway, as good fats are essential in a balanced diet.


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