Which health foods lie to us? How to decipher confusing packaging

British Dietetic Association spokesperson Kiri Elliott reveals how to know if that organic, low-fat snack bar in your bag is all it's cracked up to be 

Staying healthy can be confusing as hell. One minute fat is public enemy number one, the next it’s acceptable to be a glutton for unsaturated fats but sugar is totally off the menu.

It’s no wonder, then, that research at St George's University in London recently showed that studies about healthy eating leave people feeling confused. And a separate survey in the US found that eight in 10 Americans don’t know what they’re supposed to be feeding themselves to stay fit and free from illness.

And some food manufacturers are all too happy to leave us in the dark. An obstacle in healthy eating is clever - or misleading - marketing which paints products as wholesome when they are in fact packed with saturated fats and refined sugars. Food including granola, cereal, protein bars, yogurts, flapjacks and smoothies are among the biggest offenders, according to British Dietetic Association spokesperson Kiri Elliott. And protein balls, which are relatively new to the market, are the latest culprit on that list.

The issue partly lies in foods being presented as healthy in one area - for instance low in sugar - while the presence of other nasties like sky-high saturated fat content are less well-advertised.

“When a product’s nutritional value stops being looked at holistically, perception of health benefit can easily be skewed,” explains Elliott. “Consumers need to consider products in the context of their whole dietary intake and activity levels. Thanks to the wellness industry, people associate energy balls with high protein content, but when you look at the other macronutrients they are often high in fat and sugar too. "

The simplest way to avoid being tripped up is first by checking the product’s traffic light system, where more green lights is better than red. But that’s not always so easy, adds Elliott, as some manufacturers choose not to adopt this system that makes the macronutrient content of their products clear.

When looking at the back of a packet, food should generally contain less than 3g or of fat per 100g; 5g sugar; and 0.3 salt. And food that contains more than 17.5g per 100g of fat; or 22.5g of sugar and 1.5g of salt should only be eaten occasionally.

But in the likely event that you don’t have those exact figures to hand, another way to gauge if a food isn’t the best choice for your body is by scanning the ingredients list.

“In the UK, ingredients are listed in order of most to least so if things like oils, nuts and seeds are near the top of the list that product is likely to be high in fat and energy and if sugar, honey, syrup or even dried fruit are high up in the label that product is likely to have a high sugar content,” says Elliott. "So whilst there are no thresholds for particular products as to whether a product is considered healthy or unhealthy, comparing the labels of similar products and using the info below will help the consumer make a better informed choice towards their health goals," he says.

For those already hooked on granola and snack bars, Elliott suggests swapping to fruit and vegetables.

“To get a protein fix instead of a typical protein ball or bar, which contains five to 10g protein per serving, try a boiled egg which contains 6g of protein; hummus and vegetable sticks, with four grams per serving, or a low sugar strained yoghurt with a sprinkling of mixed seeds which has 13.5g protein per serving.

"A good exchange for granola could be a bowl of porridge made with coarse oats, which is the main ingredient in granola, and using soya, nut or diary milk with a topping of fruit of their choice. Other whole grain cereals such as branflakes, shredded wheat or wheat biscuits which don’t have added sugar are ideal alternative choices and have the added benefit of high fibre content."

The most important lesson, adds Elliott, is the consider a product holistically and to question claims that something to have one perceived benefit. Then use the labels to decide what fits with your own well-being goals.

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