Ingredients lists are a great way of knowing whether you’re buying a whole food or not. In the scientific literature, a whole food is defined as being ‘intact’ or, even if it has been processed, having the same composition as the naturally occurring product. Take whole wheat for example. It’s inedible picked right off the grass, but when it’s ground up into whole wheat flour it becomes edible and still has the same composition as its original form.
Whole foods will usually only contain one ingredient and maybe an acidity regulator or preservative to keep bacterial growth at bay and prolong the shelf life. A highly processed food will contain many more ingredients. These are the foods that need a little more scrutiny of their label.
Checking the ingredients list will tell you what’s been added to the product, such as salt, sugar and other foods, which is particularly important if you need to avoid certain ingredients due to allergies or a health condition.
Health claims are words used on the label to draw attention to a particular health-promoting property of the product. They are usually not a good way of picking a food as they can often be misleading. Check ingredients lists and nutrition information panels to get some more information. Also, don’t forget to ask yourself whether it is a core food or a discretionary food. Examples of common health claims include:
- low fat
- fat free
- lite or light
- no added sugar
- no added salt
- salt reduced
- low salt
- high fibre.
Health Star Rating
Image source: Health Star Rating System
The Health Star Rating gives food a score out of five stars based on various properties about the food and its ingredients. The more stars, the healthier the food. However, the Health Star Rating is a hotly debated part of a nutrition label, as there is a very clear context in which the label needs to be used.
The Health Star Rating provides a quick, easy, standard way to compare similar packaged foods. It was designed to compare between ‘like’ products. It was not designed to be used with fresh produce or whole foods. However, many fresh and whole foods are bought in a labelled packet to which manufacturers have added the Health Star Rating. As a result, some whole foods lose stars on certain points, making consumers think twice about their choice.
This rating can also be misleading when a discretionary food contains lots of added health benefits (fibre, vitamins, minerals). The addition of these ingredients can increase the Health Star Rating even though the food should not be consumed in high amounts. To explain this further, the algorithm used to calculate the Health Star Rating takes into account the nutritional value of ‘prepared foods’. As a result, foods that are high in sugar, like Milo, are valued at 4.5 stars as it takes into account the fact it is prepared with skim milk. Without the skim milk, Milo would only score 2 stars.
Tip: Use this rating to compare breakfast cereals, muesli bars and lunch box snacks. Remember, this rating was designed to compare between ‘like’ products.
Daily Intake Guide (%DI)
The purpose of this label is to help consumers put a particular food or product into the context of their whole diet. The problem? The label is still difficult to interpret, and each individual needs different amounts of all of the nutrients above.
At best, it’s a somewhat helpful guide, but for the most part, the information on this label does not apply to the individual.
About the author
The Healthy Eating Hub
This article was written by an Accredited Practicing Dietitian from The Healthy Eating Hub. The Healthy Eating Hub is a team of university qualified nutritionists and dietitians who are passionate about helping people develop long term healthy eating habits through offering evidenced-based and practical nutrition advice that people can put into practice straight away.