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Ten tips for healthier eating and shopping

11th October 2004

The average supermarket stocks around 25,000 food items, so picking the tastiest, healthiest food options can be a daunting task. Should you believe the claims on the labels? How can you tell if a food is really healthy? And what about all those food additives - are they there for your health - or are they there to mask something unpalatable?

To help people find out more about what is in their food, two new poster guides to food labelling and food additives have been published by the Food Commission. The posters show how to spot unhealthy products, and help ensure your hard-earned cash gets spent on foods that deliver not just health and taste, but better value-for-money as well.

Here are ten tips for healthier shopping from The Food Commission’s new posters:

1) Think twice before buying ‘fruit bars’ as a healthy option for school lunch boxes. They can contain more than 60% sugar making them a sticky, calorie-laden threat to teeth. For a genuine healthy treat choose fresh fruit instead.

2) Meat isn’t always what it seems to be. What looks like 100% meat is often a mixture of meat, starch, additives and added water. For example, Bernard Matthews Ham Sandwich Slices are only 66% meat and are as soggy as a wet flannel. Even Tesco’s Finest Pork Loin Steaks contain an estimated one tenth added water.

3) If you find yourself unexpectedly wheezing, it could be something you’ve eaten. The preservative Sulphur Dioxide (E220) is known to cause breathing difficulities in susceptible individuals, but you’re unlikely to find any warning on foods and drinks that contain this additive. Sulphur Dioxide must to be listed as an ingredient in food, so if in doubt, check the ingredients list.

4) Fruity soft drinks and fruit squashes are seldom as healthy as they look. Cheap flavourings, colourings and sweeteners are used instead of real fruit juice. For example, 5Alive five fruit squash claims to be ‘bursting with fruitiness’ but contains only 4% fruit juice once diluted. Pure 100% juices are often cheaper, and contain no hidden surprises.

5) 90% of food additives are used for cosmetic purposes, changing a food’s colour, flavour, appearance or texture. These cosmetic additives can be used to make unhealthy, processed foods cheaper and more attractive than healthy fresh foods, which makes it harder for us to eat a nutritious diet.

6) Low fat spreads aren’t low fat at all. Butter-like spreads can legally claim to be ‘low fat’ even when they contain 40% fat. Other foods should only claim to be ‘low fat’ if they contain less than 3% fat.

7) ‘Luxury’ cereals are marketed as nutritious mixtures of fruit, nuts and grain, but some contain surprisingly large doses of added fat and sugar. You probably wouldn’t expect to find vegetable oil in your breakfast cereal, but it’s the third main ingredient in some of these cereals, just after sugar.

8) Raspberry flavour yogurt should contain raspberries shouldn’t it? Nope. Only if it were described as raspberry flavoured would its flavour need to come from real raspberries, and even then the fruit content could be very, very small (less than 1% in some cases!). There’s only one way to check the raspberry content, and that’s to look at the ingredients list.

9) Ingredients must be listed in descending order of weight - biggest first - which means that anyone can quickly check what the main ingredients are in a product. For example, a chicken pie that lists chicken as the fifth ingredient doesn't contain much chicken.

10) Many food colourings were first invented to dye fabrics – but are now routinely added to our food and drink. Some, such as Tartrazine (E102), Sunset Yellow (E110), Carmoisine (E122) and Ponceau 4R (E124) have been shown in a recent government-funded study to be linked to behavioural problems in young children.

To find out more amazing facts and information about your food, check out The Food Commission Guide to Reading Food Labels and The Food Commission Guide to Food Additives. Both are priced at £2.50 (inclusive of postage and packing) and can be obtained from The Food Commission, Freepost KE 7564, London N1 9BR. Cheques should be made payable to The Food Commission. Note: These posters are no longer for sale. PDF versions can be viewed below.

The Food Commission is a not-for-profit organisation campaigning for healthier, safer food in the UK.

Useful resources

Open full size PDF of Additives Poster. Click on link to open page. 162 KB. Suitable for viewing on screen using Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Open full size PDF of Labelling Poster. Click on link to open page. 330 KB. Suitable for viewing on screen using Adobe Acrobat Reader.