When people are nutritionally uneducated, and so, they don’t know what is healthy they should not be blamed for choosing poorly. But, once the information is given to the customer, then it is their responsibility to choose wisely. The idea of a color-coded labelling, developed in the UK, is to empower the customer to make smarter, healthier choices. However, although this classification could be useful under some circumstances, it can be catastrophic under many others. This is because the system oversimplifies the way the customer analyses the foods and drinks they buy, and healthy products can be perceived as unhealthy, while ultra-processed, non-healthy products can be perceived as healthy.
In summary, the customer is given information, is held responsible for their choices, yet they are likely to still get unhealthy products even when they think otherwise.
Instead of giving some credit to people’s intelligence and providing basic nutritional education to the population (starting with children), they colour-code products and hope for the best. And in case this was not already confusing, some products are not colour-coded and some do not even show any labelling at all.
In this post we will provide key concepts, easy to understand, so the reader can decipher whether a product is healthy or not. We will explain the NOVA food classification (Monteiro et al., 2016), which “categorises foods according to the extent and purpose of food processing, rather than in terms of nutrients”.
1st do not mind the colour-coded labelling
Not just jet. It is indeed the easiest thing to look at, but better take a look later, after you understand what product you have in your hands.
2nd list of ingredients
For every product that comes in a package, you will find a list of ingredients usually at the back or the sides of it, and frequently in different languages (see below).
The ingredients are sorted by amount, so the first ingredient in the list is the one representing the larger percentage.
If you want to know whether a product has added sugar or not, you should check the list of ingredients. If sugar is among them, sugar has been added to the products. So, if you are checking a juice at the supermarket and you see – Ingredients: apple juice from concentrate, sugar – then you know that apart from the sugar naturally contained in the juice, the manufacturer has added extra sugar. Interestingly, sugar can be called many ways, so you should get familiarised with some of the different names it goes by. The same procedure can be used to see whether a product has added fats (eg. canola oil or palm oil)
3rd nutritional information
Somewhere in the package you will find a table with the nutritional information. Sometimes you will find a list instead, although it will hold the same information. This table explains the amount of the different macronutrients contained in the product (fat, carbohydrate and protein). If the manufacturer wants to be customer friendly, the table will show values per 100g, but sometimes they only show values per portion (could be 30g, 150g or any amount the manufacturer believes is appropriate).
4th Determine the type of product
Now that you have taken a look at the product, you can figure out the type of food it is.
If the food has no packaging, or if there is no added sugar or fat/oil and the ingredients resemble food you could obtain from nature, you are holding an unprocessed or minimally processed food. These foods should be the base of your diet.
If the product has been obtained from a natural food (eg. butter from milk, oil from seeds) and it is meant to be consumed together with other food (eg. butter, oil, fat, salt, sugar) you are in front of a processed culinary ingredient. You should use small amounts of these for seasoning and cooking.
If the product is a combination of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients, we are talking about a processed food. You should limit them so they are secondary in your diet.
Finally, if you find lots of ingredients (usually five or more), including dyes and other colours, stabilisers, flavours, flavour enhancers, sweeteners… you can say it is an ultra-processed food. These products should be avoided since they are nutritionally poor, tend to be consumed in excess and displace real food.
5th decide if you want to buy it
You have identified the product and you know whether you should have it or not. If it is not a good one you can still buy it, but at least you understand it is not ideal, and you have increased your awareness (you have not been deceived, you buy it because you want to).
Now, you may want to look again at the colour-coded label and see if it makes sense considering what you just discovered few seconds back.
Monteiro, C. A., Cannon, G., Levy, R., Moubarac, J.-C., Jaime, P., Martins, A. P., . . . Parra, D. (2016). NOVA. The star shines bright. World Nutrition(1-3), 28-38%V 27. Retrieved from https://worldnutritionjournal.org/index.php/wn/article/view/5