Outsmart food marketing: read your labels

“I eat that high protein Milo cereal stuff.”

“Well I buy him Nutri-Grain because it’s got 4 health stars.”

“I just use those porridge sachet things. They’re really low in fat.”

And that’s just breakfast cereals. I’ve met countless clients who are incredibly misled by food marketing. And it’s amazing to watch their eyes widen in horror as we look at the back of a couple packets together to see what the ‘natural’, ‘low-fat’, ‘high protein’, ‘4 health star’ stuff is actually made of. Spoiler alert: it ain’t good.

The food industry is under no obligation to be particularly truthful about their products. If they were, Nutri-Grain and Milo cereal would be renamed “A Bowlful of Sugar”. Instead of pictures of Iron Men and active kids playing football, the boxes would feature lethargic children falling asleep during school. Your health is not their priority. Profits are. So it’s in their best interest to market their products in any way that is going to sell them. Often that means marketing something as healthy when it’s anything but.

My advice is to straight up ignore any claims on the front of packet. Low fat: lower than what? High fibre: higher than what? High protein: according to who? Natural: by what definition? It’s intentionally misleading. So where do you go for the truth?

In New Zealand, packaged foods need to list their ingredients and have a nutrition information panel. That’s the law. That’s the bit they can’t squirm away from. They can manipulate their product by adding a touch more fibre and sprinkling on some iron to get 4 health stars without lowering the sugar content one iota, but they can’t lie to you too much if you know where to look.

Step 1: find the nutrition information panel

You might need a map to locate it. And glasses to read it. It could be hidden under a flap or in a crease. But it’s there somewhere.

Step 2: look for the per 100g column (or 100ml if it’s a liquid)

Don’t be deceived by the per serve column. Things like breakfast cereals often have columns like “Per serve with half a cup trim milk” or something like that, to make the numbers appear better than they really are. That’s no use to us. We want to compare products so we need a uniform 100g to compare against. The food manufacturer decides what a serving size is. They could make a serving size a tablespoon of cereal if they so desired, to make it look super low in sugar. To compare apples with apples, look for the 100g column. And, on that note: compare apples with apples. No point in comparing yoghurt to muesli bars; instead compare yoghurt to yoghurt and muesli bars to muesli bars.

Step 3: look for sugar

It’s under the carbohydrate heading but it’s there. Have a look at how much sugar there is per 100g. Is it 22.5g (the box of Milo cereal I have with me) or is it 2.8g (the box of Weet-Bix)? Remember, because you’re looking at a uniform 100g, you can think of this as a percentage value. 22% sugar not so great…

You might want to check out dietary fibre as well, but they don’t have to say where it comes from. I would prefer a wholegrain bread with slightly lower fibre to a white bread that’s high in added fibre. Because the grain is more intact in the first one and the bread is less processed overall. Something to keep in mind.

Step 4: now that you’re sufficiently horrified, read the ingredients

Ingredients have to be listed in order of quantity by weight. So the first ingredient is what the product is mostly made up of. As an example, the Milo cereal box I’ve got lists whole grain cereals (34%) as the first ingredient. Next is wheat protein (22%). We’re at 56% altogether now. Still half to go… Next is sugar, then some formulated supplementary food base (I guess that’s the Milo), then milk powder, more sugar and a bunch of other things. Altogether it has 18 ingredients.

Let’s compare it to the Weet-Bix. Wholegrain wheat (97%). Then sugar. Then salt, malt extract, vitamins and iron. Six ingredients altogether. I know which one I’d pick. I once heard it said that if you need to Google what the ingredients are, then it’s probably not food – a great tip.

Bonus step: skip the packaged stuff altogether

In the perfect world, we simply wouldn’t buy anything that came in a packet. We wouldn’t give our money to a Big Food industry that tries to swindle us with clever marketing of highly processed products. We’d grow, gather and cook everything ourselves. I truly believe we should strive to have as much homemade stuff as possible, but we both know it’s not possible all the time because we don’t live in a perfect world. You’ll probably buy something in a packet at some point. So when you do, take a gander at the label. See if the claims on the front of the packet actually stack up against the hard numbers. That way you can make a more informed choice before you buy.

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