Reading food labels

You don’t read the fine print only in contracts and other legal documents.

Gerard Wong, senior dietitian at the Singapore-based Parkway Cancer Centre, says food labels also merit careful scrutiny to avoid certain ailments, particularly the dreaded cancer.

Wong lists the three most important things to look out for when reading food labels: ingredient list, nutrition information panel and nutrient claims.

The ingredient list should contain all the stuff used to make the product, listed from the most important to the least. A very basic detail immediately comes to mind when talking about ingredient list. Very often, products that seem to be made from a certain fruit or vegetable do not actually contain the real thing but get their taste from artificial flavorings.

The nutrition information panel also deserves careful reading. Wong mentions in particular the use of fat in food products. It is not just the amount – the higher the fat content, the less healthy the food is – but also the kind of fat used.

The dietitian advises avoiding as much as possible products with high saturated and trans fats. Labels of snack and junk foods require careful scrutiny as they often use both kinds of fat, although more and more products appear to be moving away from trans fats.

Wong cautions against products using hydrogenated oil. “Hydrogenation is a food processing technique, which results in the formation of trans fat. It is known that hydrogenated fats have a more damaging impact on the body than saturated fat.”

He said during a recent presentation in Manila on food labeling that “Singapore has banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils as an ingredient in all foods sold in Singapore. This includes all pre-packaged foods, like cookies, potato chips and instant noodles, even if they were manufactured overseas.”

As for saturated fats, he says someone who has a problem with high cholesterol levels, in particular the so-called bad cholesterol, should consider cutting down on various forms of saturated fat.

Cost, of course, is a major factor in the choice of ingredients, particularly for products for mass consumption like chips and other snack items.

Wong says the first press or cold-pressed palm oil, like coconut, likely contains more antioxidants. But the price of such high-quality coconut and vegetable/palm oil may lead manufacturers to choose cheaper alternatives. 

Healthier oils, like olive, avocado and sunflower, are also pricier options.  Wong suggests alternating use of different forms of unsaturated fats, including canola oil. “I feel the negatives of canola oil are blown out of proportion. Should you feel adverse towards its use, you can certainly consider other alternatives,” he says.

Canola, which is derived from rapeseed, is reputed to have “the least amount of saturated fat of any plant oil” and has also higher omega-3 fatty acids content.

Canola has had some bad press because most products in the market come from genetically modified plants. Some people also voiced concerns about the manner of oil extraction.

But medical experts have generally given it a clean bill of health and the assurance that health risks are minimal, if not non-existent.

Wong advises avoiding foods high in salt and to check nutrient content claims – how much vitamins and minerals they provide. Also, to read carefully if the amounts given apply to each serving of the food item or the whole package. What may seem a lot may not actually be so if applied to the whole package rather than per serving and vice versa.

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