One of the common things that crops up in my advice and blogs is ‘eliminate, cut down or avoid processed foods’. But when it comes down to it – what is processed food and how do we know what’s ok and what’s not?
There are different levels of processed food, and it’s not all bad, for instance some cheeses and butter, oils and cured meats are processed foods, they are foods that combine one or two ingredients.
And then there is ultra processed food like breakfast cereals, pre-packaged meals, industrial made bread and reconstituted meat product, sweets, and crisps etc. It’s this group that we want to avoid as much as possible.
A good rule is ‘the rule of 5’, which is to avoid anything with over 5 ingredients. But even then, things can be a little confusing, even something that is sold as ‘healthy’ may not be as healthy as it seems.
So how do we tell what’s good, and what’s not?
With food labels, things can get confusing. The rule of five basically means – if you are faced with a long list of confusing names and numbers, don’t put it in your shopping basket.
In this blog post I will explain what you should look out for, what’s ok and what to avoid.
The advice I give all my clients is to buy whole foods as much as possible and prepare everything fresh so you know exactly what ingredients go into your food. You are then in charge of the amount of salt and sugar you add.
Food Labels debunked
Manufacturers add food additives to protect against spoilage and to prolong a product’s shelf life, to alter taste, texture or colour to make the food more appealing.
The major groups of food additives are:
• Colouring, which is added to make food look more appealing.
• Flavour Enhancers which improve the taste of the food.
• Sweeteners which make food appear low sugar and taste better.
• Emulsifiers and Stabilisers to blend foods together and to smooth the texture.
• Preservatives which prolong shelf life and stop it from going off.
• Thickeners and Gelling Agents to make ingredients like soup and desserts less watery.
Look out for all additives that start with the letter E. ‘E’ stands for Europe and the codes are used to classify the food additives used within the European Union. Food labels outside the EU will use a number for their food additives, e.g 220.
Here are a few examples:
E211: Sodium benzoate
E300: Ascorbic acid
Always read labels carefully, either the number or the name will be written. If it’s a name, you do not recognise do not buy it.
In the UK, the following additives must carry a warning as they can cause adverse effect on activity and attention in children. These are:
Sunset yellow FCF (E110)
Quiloline yellow (E104)
Allura red (E129)
Ponceau 4R (E124)
Manufacturers are encouraged to look for alternatives to these harmful chemicals. Other known additives which cause problems in some people include:
E211 Sodium Benzoate: used in carbonated beverages, fruit juices, pickles, salsa and dips.
E220 Sulphur Dioxide: Used in dried fruit, fruit juice, pickled vegetables, sausages, cider and wine.
E251 Sodium Nitrate: Used in processed meat such as bacon, sausages, and ham.
All of these can be linked to adverse effects, in particular, to asthma and other allergies.
Other approved additives which cause health concerns include:
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin. These are highly addictive and toxic to cells, damaging cellular DNA.
Food enhancers such as E621 MSG (monosodium glutamate) are linked to headaches, skin flushing, sweating, muscle tightness, numbness or burning in the mouth, dizziness, chest pain, and heart palpitations.
I have listed the most common as there are far too many to go into in one article. If you are at all unsure, then avoid it.
In the UK food labels also have a red, amber and green colour coding.
Colour-coded nutritional information tells you at a glance if the food has high, medium or low amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt: red means high, amber means medium, green means low.
But this does not mean go ‘low fat’, this can be misleading. Low-fat foods may seem healthy, but they’re often full of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients, and are no more better for you than the full fat version.
Read the labels in order
Everything that goes into a food product will be listed in weight order, from the biggest to the smallest. So if the first few ingredients contain saturated fat – like cream, butter, fatty meat or cheese – or sugars, whether white or brown sugar, syrups or concentrated fruit juice, it’s worth bearing in mind that these make up the largest proportion of the food.
Understanding sugar on labels
Watch out for hidden sugars in products that are sold as healthy. Just because something is labelled ‘organic’ or ‘vegan’ it does not mean it’s good for us!
Names for sugar include:
• Fruit juice concentrate
• Anything ending in ‘ose’ such as fructose, glucose, dextrose and maltose.
If it’s listed on the ingredients list, then it’s added sugar, however natural it sounds.
Processed Vegan and vegetarian food look out for
Veganism has become really popular and there are some thoughts that moving to a vegan diet is healthier and helps the environment. The big brands have got on board and you can find vegan alternatives of many popular processed foods in supermarkets. But like non vegan processed foods, the rules are the same. Many of the ‘vegan’ products on the market contain highly processed ingredients or excess levels of sugar and salt.
Watch out for frozen fake meats such as chicken nuggets or meat alternatives and processed vegan meats. They contain high levels of soya, sugars, bad fats and salt.
And some vegan deserts might be even worse for you than a traditional chocolate mousse or strawberry cheesecake. This is because when manufacturers take out butter and eggs, they often replace them with starches, gums, and pectins to achieve a similar consistency and texture.
When looking at food labels, always ask yourself:
• Would you use the Ingredients yourself when cooking?
• What types of fats and oils are used?
• Is there added salt and sugar?
• Are there additives, preservatives and food colourings?
• Is the food nutrient dense?
• Is it GMO?
This is such a vast subject that it’s impossible to cover it all here, but I hope this blog has made you think about your choices. If you have anything to add or have found this useful, then please get in touch.