Choosing Healthy Food

"Go on, do yourself a favour," urge supermarket meals and treats that suggest they’re healthier than the rest. The shelves are stacked with these alluring alternatives promising reduced fat, fewer calories and helpful nutrients. But comparisons aren't always easy to make and it can be tricky working out what's really healthy. And are those virtuous-looking ready meals and snacks telling the whole truth?

Label logic?

Don't be swayed by claims like 'fat-free' and 'only 50 calories'. Look for what they don't tell you and try to compare them with similar products to make sure they're not giving the misleading impression that they’re healthier than they really are.

Some 'healthy' ready meals are high in salt - sometimes higher than the standard version. Low-fat desserts can be full of sugar. Don't assume household brand-names or economy packs compare unfavourably with supposedly 'healthier' foods either. A Sainsbury's 'Be Good to Yourself' range Balance breakfast cereal boasts less than three per cent fat, but ordinary cornflakes contain half as much. And both Shredded Wheat and Weetabix have more than twice as much fibre as Balance has.

Labelling legislation is woolly; the National Consumer Council is pressing for clearer, enforceable food labelling across Europe. Recent reviews of research carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency confirm that consumers are often confused by health claims on food labels.

An EU-wide review of food labelling aims to tighten up inconsistencies that allow products that are high in salt to boast that they're low-fat, for example, as well as banning health claims that don't have scientific backing. According to a new European regulation that has been in effect in the UK since 1 July 2007, health claims should only be authorised if they are clearly understood by the average consumer.

By the time the legislation comes into force in 2009, food producers must be able to prove to the European Food Safety Authority that any claims can be backed up by evidence. Products that are high in calcium, for instance, can legitimately claim that calcium is good for bones. Oats have been shown to help reduce cholesterol as part of a low-fat diet and this claim could be made on a product. There is nothing in the legislation specifically covering claims for omega-3.

Ready, steady, go for low

The Government wants to help consumers make healthy choices, and that's why it's encouraging a labelling system designed to show at a glance what's in the food. The 'traffic light' scheme marks the salt, sugar and fat content of the food in red if it's high, green for low and amber for medium.

The colour code has been adopted by Sainsbury's, the Co-op, Marks and Spencer, Asda and Waitrose on their own-brand ready meals, pizzas, soups and other convenience foods, making comparison between dishes easier and helping shoppers switch from high-fat, salty ready meals. However, Tesco and some food manufacturers have introduced their own rival labelling system showing the calories, sugars, fats and salt as a percentage of the guideline daily allowance (GDA) of each in a serving.

However, there's no quick-to-spot colour code to show whether the fat, sugar or salt content is considered high, making it harder to see how meals compare. Serving sizes may be unrealistically small, too, so it's often difficult to get a true picture of the fat, salt or calorie content in a portion. You have to look closely to discover that Tesco's 'Healthy Living' chicken jalfrezi contains 38 per cent of the guideline daily amount of salt while its 'Healthy Living' turkey, tomato and lettuce sandwich has 35 per cent of the salt GDA.

When 'less' can mean 'more'

There's no legal definition of 'low-fat' although, as a guideline, three to 20 per cent is considered a moderate amount of total fat in a food. A 'reduced fat' claim on the label means that the food should be 25 per cent lower in fat than the standard product, but that still doesn't mean that it's at the lower end of the fat-content spectrum.

Similarly, Government guidelines state that the term 'reduced-calorie' should mean that calories are at least 25 per cent lower than in the standard version. Be careful though - 'reduced calorie' or 'lighter' isn't the same thing as 'low in calories'.

The 'fat' obsession

Fat is an obsession with food manufacturers hoping to appeal to the weight-conscious. But lower fat foods may contain less-appealing ingredients instead. Take reduced-fat garlic baguettes which replace butter, garlic and herbs with, among other ingredients, palm oil, sodium alginate, polyglycerol polyricinoleate and potassium sorbate.

Desserts that boast about their low fat content may have surprisingly large amounts of sugar in them. Muller Rice has less than three per cent fat but contains more sugar than rice, clocking in at 472 calories per 100g. Check the labels on low-calorie desserts and drinks that boast of having no added sugar to see what they are sweetened with – they may be sweetened with the controversial sweetener aspartame.

Fat snacks

Snacks are often intrinsically unhealthy and they can be the undoing of the best healthy eating intentions. There's a whole section in the supermarket labelled 'healthier' crisps; the fat and salt content has been reduced on some but you'll have to read the labels carefully to work out the differences. Walkers SunBites wholegrain snacks do contain more fibre than most crisps but are 22 per cent fat.

Cereal bars are a sticky area when it comes to comparing the contents. Some aren't as nutritious as you'd expect. And even those that claim to be low in fat are very sweet, consisting of more than a third sugar.

Fresh is best

Often foods marketed at slimmers are not very nutritious. One so-called 'slimming' chicken and sweetcorn flavour packet soup mix contained no sweetcorn and only one per cent chicken, water and glucose syrup being the first two ingredients. Okay, so it's less than 60 calories a serving but where's the goodness in it?

The healthiest food you can buy - fresh fruit and vegetables - doesn't come with a label. Fresh ingredients won't list their nutrients, additives (or absence of) or boast that they're good for you (they don't need to).

So, beware of the claims of labels. Look for the Government-approved traffic light rating - if there is one - and look even more carefully where there isn't.

Where possible, prepare foods yourself. You'll know exactly what you're eating and nothing with a 'healthy choice' label emblazoned on it is likely to be as virtuous - or as delicious.

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