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What do all those Food Labels really mean? Here’s what you should know.

Break down those wholesome-sounding stickers on your supermarket shopping so you can read between the lines.


Label: “No added sugars”

You think it means: A low-sugar choice

Find it on: Fruit juice, yogurt, and cereal

What it really means: Many products that have this label may still be sweetened using juice concentrates that contain high sugar levels. What’s worse, they can be sweetened with sugar substitutes like aspartame, which can cause bloating and stomach discomfort, and have been linked with cancer-causing properties.

Avoid it: Avoid sugars and sweeteners like brown rice syrup, caramel, fruit juice concentrate, aspartame and anything involving high-fructose corn syrup. Go for fruit, dark chocolate or naturally sugar-free products like meats, nuts and veggies like zucchini and squash.


Label: “Gluten-free”

You think it means: No wheat added

Find it on: Pasta, cereal, wraps and snack bars

What it really means: The trace amounts of rye, wheat and barley gluten may be negligible. However, “gluten-free” products can be unhealthy if they contain highly refined, high-glycemic starches like corn starch, potato starch and tapioca starch, and high levels of sodium and sugars.

Avoid it: Opt for naturally gluten-free foods like eggs, avocados and unprocessed buckwheat and quinoa in place of wheat.


Label: “Packed with vitamins and antioxidants”

You think it means: Just like eating fruit and veggies

Find it on: Cereal, canned soup, packet juice and jam

What it really means: These products are made with ingredients that once had antioxidants in them – like fruit juices, which are often used to give colour to cereal – or are fortified with some vitamins. These nutrients, however, might not survive the cooking process and provide you with the benefits you would get from consuming unprocessed foods.

Avoid it: Get these nutrients straight from the source – think fresh produce like fruit, veggies, whole grains and lean meats.


Label: “Made with whole grains”

You think it means: All the grains in it are fully intact and unprocessed

Find it on: Baked and high-carbohydrate foods such as breads, cereal, biscuits, wraps, muesli, crackers and snack bars

What it really means: A product containing whole grains means it uses every part of the grain – the germ, the endosperm and the bran. However, these grains may only make up as little as 10% of the food, or they may have been pulverised into very fine flour – both of which can spike blood sugar levels just as fast as products with refined grains. High-calorie ingredients like caramel are also sometimes added to give products that dark brown, wholegrain colour.

Avoid it: Make sure the product contains at least 16g of whole grains per serving. If it’s 8g or less, it is bound to contain enriched or refined flour (flour that has the germ and bran removed). Also, just to be safe, look for the “100% whole wheat grain” label and check the fibre content – if it contains less than 3g per serving, it’s likely not made with only whole grains. Opt for rice, quinoa, millet, corn, barley, oats and rye instead.


Label: “Made with real fruit”

You think it means: Contains real fruit

Find it on: Juice, yogurt, children’s snacks and cereal

What it really means: Chances are that fruit juice concentrates, which are teeming with sugars, are used. Real fruit contains fibre – which fills the stomach, slows digestion and fights diseases – that is lost when it’s made into juice and added into products. And don’t buy into the gimmick that the product contains two or more servings of your daily required intake of fruit – the vitamins, antioxidants and minerals go to waste when fruit is preserved or dehydrated for use in packaged products.

Avoid it: Buy plain products like unsweetened cornflakes and jazz it up by adding fresh fruit. Sweetened fruit roll-ups don’t count.


Label: “Organic”

You think it means: Locally produced and healthy

Find it on: Almost every type of product – poultry, eggs, yogurt, grains, fruit, veggies, coffee and chocolate

What it really means: Most government food and dietary associations do not regulate the use of this label, especially for packaged products that are imported into the country. This means marketers can slap on an organic label even if only a minor component added to the food or drink is organic.

Avoid it: Opt for organic fresh produce – these are usually grown without the use of chemical pesticides and will be in their best nutritional state. Avoid processed “organic” foods like snacks and candy, which are often fortified with salt and sugars, and can contain more calories than their conventional counterparts.


Expert sources:

Ketki Vinayachandra, naturopath and nutritionist at Natural Medicine (www.alternative-naturalmedicine.com) and freelance nutritionist, Sheeba Majumdar (www.sheebathenutritionist.com)


By Ankita Varma, Her World Fit & Fab, Issue #3 2014

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