Food labelling should be simple, shouldn’t it? In fact, can’t we just look at food packaging and be totally clear on what we’re eating?
Unfortunately, food labelling is so complex that there is a committee that meets regularly to discuss ongoing issues and when you delve down into the minutiae of this complicated area you soon realise that it is anything but straightforward. Despite attempts to simplify labelling, we’re still unable to know with certainty whether something is healthy, where it’s from, how it was produced and whether it meets our moral and ethical standards.
For instance, the introduction of Genetically Modified (GM) food into our diet has caused much controversy and for those people who want to avoid it, they should in theory be able to identify what is GM and what isn’t. However, whilst GM food has to be labelled as GM, products produced with GM technology or produce from animals fed with GM feed e.g. meat, eggs and milk, doesn’t have to be labelled as GM.
Another case in point is the ‘horse-meat’ scandal, where many supermarket meat products were found to contain horse-meat even though they were labelled as containing meat such as beef. To appease us we were told that if meat displays the ‘red tractor’ logo it is guaranteed to meet “responsible production standards and is fully traceable back to independently inspected farms in the UK. Yet, an investigation found that it was highly likely that one source of meat carrying this logo originated from outside the UK. If this one, how many more?
Bread also may contain unexpected ingredients, such as enzymes derived from pig, and unless you’re familiar with the word ‘phospholipase’ it’s unlikely you would know that this came from pig pancreatic tissue. There are also dough conditioners and enriching agents found in bread that you need to spend time investigating to understand what they are and where they derive from.
The voluntary traffic light system lists the amounts of fat, saturates, sugars, salt and calories in food items and gives values of these per 100g and what % they are of an adult’s daily reference intake, but not a child’s, which can be confusing and frustrating for parents.
However, it’s not just the labelling that’s confusing but also the messages we receive. For instance, ‘low fat’ products are marketed as being healthy when actually they’re often high in sugar and of course, not all fat is unhealthy. We need ‘essential fats’ to remain healthy, and yet many would have us believe that the opposite is true.
There are many pitfalls and little clarity in food labelling. Even if we buy organic food, there may be different terms for it such as ‘100% organic, ‘organic’ and ‘made with organic ingredients’, depending on how much organic ingredients are contained in the food.
I wrote this blog with the intention of explaining how to use food labels confidently, but by the end of it I realise that I couldn’t. Producing your own food from scratch is the only way you’ll have the confidence to know that you’re getting what you think you’re getting. If you don’t have the time or resources to do this, then try to buy food that has been processed as little as possible. The more natural its state the less likely it will be to contain unwanted extras.
Bio: Elizabeth Cooper is a Nutritional Therapist who runs several clinics, both privately and for a leading health charity, around Leeds and Harrogate. She is also co-author of a healthy lifestyle booklet for children.