What's in your food?
We have a greater range of food available to us than ever before, but we’re not always in control of what goes into it. Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor helps us to understand what’s really in our food.
With many of the foods we eat now made in factories, and so much seemingly conflicting advice about what we should be eating, it’s no wonder many of us worry about what’s in our food. While some of these worries may be misplaced, there’s no doubt that paying attention to what’s inside the products we regularly eat can benefit our health.
In the UK, all packaged foods have to carry a standard amount of information on what they contain. This helps to ensure that food is safe and information is accurate and can be used to compare products. While this means that foods we buy won’t be harmful in the short term, some can still have long-term effects on our health.
To lower your risk of heart and circulatory disease, checking the salt, saturated fat and sugar content of food is very important. But there are other things to think about too.
What's in your food?
Do you know what you're eating? Find out what's in common foods and how to make healthier choices.
Do I need to read food labels?
Food labels can seem like a lot of information to take in. If you’re new to looking at them, you may worry that you’ll end up spending hours doing your weekly shop.
Some foods are easy to spot as being high in saturated fat, salt or sugar. You don’t, for example, need to read a food label to know that cakes, biscuits and crisps aren’t a healthy option. Others, however, are less clear – even reduced-fat or reduced-calorie versions of foods are often still not healthy choices (‘reduced’ is not the same as ‘low’, and they may be unhealthy in other ways). So understanding what’s generally found in different types of foods can be helpful.
In general, preserved foods are high in salt.
Processed meats such as ham, salami or bacon will almost always have salt added (as a preservative as well as for flavour).
In general, preserved foods – chutneys, pickled onions, gherkins, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and even cheese – are high in salt. Sugar is also used as a preservative, which means you usually don’t need to read the label on jams and chutneys to know that they’ll be high in sugar.
Products that include some healthy and some less healthy ingredients are where it’s most important to check nutritional information. These include popcorn with sweet, buttery or salty flavours, cereal bars with chocolate chips and flavoured low-fat yoghurts. The nutritional labels are the only way to tell if they will be right for you.
Sometimes, there won’t be food labels – this often applies with restaurants, takeaways, in-store bakeries and alcoholic drinks. In these cases, try looking online. If you still can’t find any information, reading food labels for similar foods can help you understand what kinds of ingredients these products are likely to contain. Also, be aware that portion sizes are often bigger for foods eaten out, or items like cakes and cookies from in-store bakeries, compared with packaged items.
Spotting sugar in foods
Front-of-pack labels will show you if a product is high, medium or low in sugars (back-of-pack labels will show you how much they contain per 100g), but this doesn’t differentiate between sugars that are naturally occurring (from milk or whole fruit) and free sugars (from added sugars or juices). The free sugars are the type we need to cut down on, and to do this you’ll need to look at the ingredients list.
The higher up the list the ingredient is, the more of it will be in the product. Unfortunately, sugar hides under different names. As a rule of thumb, anything ending in ‘ose’ will be a sugar – glucose, fructose, maltose – but there are many other names for sugar, so watch out for syrups, nectars and honey.
Sugars with names like agave nectar or coconut sugar might sound healthier, but aren’t – remember, normal sugar comes from plants too. See our list of different names for sugars.
Understanding saturated and unsaturated fats
While the total amount of fat you consume is important in helping you to manage your weight, for most people the priority is to swap the unhealthy saturated fats in our diet for unsaturated fats such as olive, sunflower and vegetable oil, and unsaturated spreads.
Saturated fat is found in products that contain butter, coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and any animal fats (such as lard or goose fat). You might see ‘all butter’ used as a selling point on products like biscuits or pastry, but this is bad news when it comes to your heart health. Choose potatoes roasted in vegetable oil rather than goose fat, and avoid foods and sauces using coconut.
Palm oil and coconut oil are the only plantbased oils that are saturated fats. Palm oil is widely used in manufactured foods. You’ll see it in biscuits, cakes and bread, as well as many spreads. In products such as wholegrain bread, the amounts are small, so don’t worry too much, as long as it’s low in saturated fat (1.5g or less per 100g). Spreads containing palm oil along with other oils will have less saturated fat than butter, so are still a better choice, but it’s worth checking labels on different spreads and choosing the one with the least saturated fat per 100g. The good news is that trans fats, which can be bad for your health, are no longer used in manufactured products in the UK.
Fibre is also worth looking out for, which is thought to benefit your heart and circulatory health as well as digestive health. To be ‘high in fibre’ a product needs 6g or more per 100g, whereas to be a ‘source of fibre’ it only needs 3g per 100g, so check the exact wording used.
What about chemicals in food?
Preservatives in foods can have an effect on your health. Preservatives used in processed meat (such as potassium nitrate) are the biggest area of concern, as they’re linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Sulphites and benzoates are also widely used preservatives, which can sometimes affect people who have asthma or eczema. Food labels will tell you if the product contains sulphites, so you can avoid them if you know you react to them.
Preservatives in foods can have an effect on your health.
Other ingredients may sound alarming but needn’t cause concern. E numbers, for example, can still be based on natural ingredients, such as E300 (vitamin C) and E164 (saffron).
Some people choose organic products to try to avoid pesticides and additives. This is a personal choice – the nutritional content will not be significantly different but the production methods will vary. If this is important to you, then it’s worth looking out for organic labelling, but don’t forget to look at the nutritional information as well.