dietitian-approved tips to spot hidden nasties

You might think you know what you’re reading when you pick up a product and read the label, but what you may not know is that some of those nasties go by a different name. Dietitian Melissa Meier explains. 

Shopping for healthy food can be a bit of a minefield. Of course, there’s the fruit and veg section, the butcher and the bakery for the no-nonsense staples, but when you enter the aisles and start analysing nutrition labels, things become a lot more complicated. To make the job a little easier, here’s a handful of ingredients and marketing catchphrases I’d suggest keeping your eye out for.

Words to avoid on the front of the packet

Before you flip to the nutrition information panel, the words and claims on the front of the packet are often telling of the healthfulness of a product – and not always for the right reasons.

Fat and/or sugar-free products, for example, might sound like a healthier option, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that nine times out of then, they’re actually not. That’s because lots of different additives and artificial sweeteners are usually added to ‘diet’ products to make up for the lack of fat and/or sugar.

‘Superfood’ is another buzzword I’d tread carefully around. There’s no regulation on the word, so anyone can use it on any product and it can be very misleading. The only ‘superfoods’ (for want of a better term) you really need in your diet are the ones from the fresh produce department.

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Humble wholegrains and legumes count, too. My tip is to ignore products like acai powders, goji berries and collagen supplements with the word ‘superfood’ plastered all over the label – they’re simply unnecessary.

Another thing you should pay absolutely no attention to are the words ‘gluten-free’ (unless you have coeliac disease or are intolerant to gluten, of course). Gluten-free products have a huge health halo, but there is no benefit to avoiding gluten if you don’t have to.

In fact, gluten-free products are often less healthy than gluten-containing ones, because highly refined ingredients, additives, sugar and fat are usually added to them to make them more palatable.

Words to avoid on the ingredients list

Front of pack aside, let’s focus on the ingredients list. The three main things to avoid with good health in mind are added sugar, saturated fat and sodium – but that’s far easier said than done. Each of these nutrients has many different guises and aren’t always simply listed as ‘sugar’, ‘fat’ and ‘sodium’.

Take sugar, for example. There are literally dozens of different names for the sweet stuff. Some of the more common ones are:

•Glucose

•Sucrose

•Malt

•Maltose

•Lactose

And I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but honey, maple syrup, rice malt syrup and agave count as added sugar, too.

Similarly, unhealthy fats can be indicated by words like:

•Animal fat

•Butter

•Copha

•Ghee

•Palm oil

While salt might sound like:

•Yeast extract

•Sodium ascorbate or bicarbonate

•Stock cubes

•Vegetable salt

All in all, my best piece of advice when doing a healthy grocery shop is to stick to the core food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, wholegrains, nuts and legumes. When you shop this way, many foods won’t even have a nutrition information panel on them.

As a general rule of thumb, the more processed a product is – and therefore the longer the ingredients list with words and numbers you mightn’t even recognise–the less likely it is to be healthy.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.