Take a walk round any local supermarket, and you’ll see various foods in brightly coloured packages screaming their various health claims at you: “sugar-free”, “diet”, “zero”, “no artificial colours or flavours”, “low fat”, “fat-free” and so on. We’re constantly being told we eat too much sugar, too much fat, too many E-numbers, and so these perfectly packaged products must be the answer, right?

But read behind these marketing claims and there’s a high chance you will a less-than-healthy food inside that packaging. From preservatives added to extend the shelf life, to colourings and sweeteners added to make a low-quality food look and taste more palatable.

Let’s take a look at a leading brand of orange squash for example, which boasts being a “sugar-free” drink, but let’s look at the ingredients closely:

Water, Orange Fruit from Concentrate (10%), Acid (Citric Acid), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrate), Natural Flavouring, Sweeteners (Aspartame, Saccharin), Preservatives (Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Metabisulphite), Stabiliser (Cellulose Gum), Emulsifier (Glycerol Esters of Wood Rosins), Natural Colour (Carotenes).

Notice how just 10% of the ingredients are from actual fruit. In fact, so little fruit is used that they even have to add extracts from yellow/orange vegetables (carotenes) just to make the drink look the right shade of orange!

Every so often, you hear a lot of hopeful chatter about a new kind of nutrition label – something to make it quick and easy for consumers to grasp how healthful or horrible a product may be.

The latest version getting a whole lot of PR? Something called NuVal, which gives a single numerical rating to a product, ranging from 1 to 100. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month,

The score is calculated based on positives, such as protein, calcium and other nutrient content, and negatives like sugar and cholesterol. Consumers who read the current nutritional labels must determine the overall health value of a food based on disparate pieces of information about nutrient content. NuVal instead boils all the information down so consumers can consider just the final score.

Walk further into the supermarket and you’ll come across various low-fat products. Pick one of those up and you’ll often find it laden with sugar or sweeteners to replace the taste of the fat that has been removed. Does that make sense to you?

Let’s take a look at a couple of fat-free strawberry yogurts…

Here are the ingredients in one leading brand described as “Delicious pieces of strawberry in light and creamy yogurt, made with skimmed milk. Less calories but just as much yumminess.”

Yogurt (Milk), Strawberries (10%), Sugar, Corn Starch, Carrot Juice, Beetroot Juice Concentrate, Thickeners: Pectin, Guar Gum; Natural Flavouring

Sugar? Were those strawberries not sweet enough? And what about all the other ingredients in there – the corn starch, pectin, guar gum…. And more natural flavours? I’m not so sure that “yumminess” is an appropriate description!

And here’s the ingredients in another brand of fat-free strawberry yogurt:

Yogurt (Milk), Strawberries (10%), Water, Fructose, Modified Maize Starch, Gelatine, Flavourings, Beetroot Juice Concentrate, Acidity Regulators: Sodium Citrates, Citric Acid, Sweetener: Aspartame

Fructose is the sugar extracted from fruit and added to the yogurt. When fructose is added to a product, rather than naturally present such as in fruit, it is known to be associated with a decline in liver function and with the onset of type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Not only did this yogurt have added fructose, it also had the non-nutritive sweetener aspartame in there too.

According to a recent marketing study out of the University of Pittsburgh, this means “healthier” choices. (We’ll get to the why of those “scare quotes” in a moment.)

“Our study indicated that the NuVal nutritional scale had an immediate and powerful impact on shopper’s decisions,” says [co-author] J. Jeffrey Inman, professor of marketing and of business administration. “They changed their purchasing behavior to pick healthier choices, and they switched to higher-scoring products. In fact, the simplified nutritional information boosted healthy choices by over 20 percent.”

In theory, fat-free yoghurt isn’t that bad an idea – it’s yoghurt made with skimmed milk rather than full fat milk (I’ll go into the downsides of skimmed milk another day!). But if you really want a fat-free strawberry yoghurt, then rather than purchase one of the above products, buy some strawberries and mash them into a pot of natural fat-free yoghurt. Bingo. And if strawberries are out of season, then pick a different fruit that is in season – sticking to seasonal fruits will provide maximum sweetness – strawberries forced to grow in greenhouses in Holland in the middle of winter, are never going to taste as sweet and delicious as those that grow willingly in a field in the middle Kent, under the warm summer sunshine!

Real food such as fruits, vegetables, meats, legumes, and fish don’t need ingredients labels. Real foods have natural sugars, and a balanced diet will contain moderate amounts of fats from animal sources and/or nuts, seeds and oils. Real foods don’t need added colours, or added sweeteners. If you have any health issues (and even if you think you don’t!) real foods are the ingredients that should be in your diet. So next time you go shopping make sure you’re reading the ingredient labels behind the marketing, and see just how many real foods you can fit into your trolley!

But above all, the fact remains that such labeling systems are really only useful for products. Our bodies were not designed to eat nor function at their best on products. They were designed for food. Real food. Whole food. Each organic “package” bringing a full complement of nutritional value.

Shop the perimeter, and you don’t need any scoring system. (Yes, decoding meat and dairy labels presents its own challenges, but there are helpful guides, such as this from EWG.)

Of course, there are a few types of items that are worth venturing into those middle aisles for – items that can help you make delicious, healthy and satisfying meals.

These include Bulk foods, such as legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains (should you choose to eat grains).
Healthy fats such as coconut, olive, flaxseed, and avocado oils.

Spices to impart deep and lively flavor into your food – some of which have amazing anti-inflammatory properties (e.g., turmeric).

Nutrition science can be tricky – this recent piece from Vox gives a good overview – but eating healthfully is not.

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