As mums, we are often doing the food shopping in a rush. So it can be easy to get sucked in by the claims written all over the food packaging. But reading food labels can help you to identify what is and isn’t good for your family.
Food labels and ingredient lists can be confusing. Knowing what to look for and what to avoid is even more confusing! So I’ve gathered my top 5 ingredients to avoid to protect your child’s health.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn about reading food labels and the main ingredients to avoid in packaged foods.
5 Ingredients To Avoid When Reading Food Labels
#1 – Artificial Colours
This is probably not a surprise to anyone – we know that artificial colours aren’t great for kids. Artificial colours are a chemical that can be quite toxic, particularly to young bodies.
Artificial colours are found in brightly coloured foods such as lollies, ice-cream, soft drinks, ice blocks and even flavoured milks. But you can also find them in jams, juices, chewing gum and even tinned soups.
The most common effect is behavioural issues such as aggression, anger and hyperactivity. I think we’ve all seen this after a kid’s birthday party with coloured icing and lolly bags! But artificial colours can also:
- Affect learning and concentration
- Exacerbate asthma and eczema symptoms
- Cause issues with sleep
- Lead to mood imbalances and even depression
When reading food labels, you want to look for the numbers between 100-181. All of these are colours, and the majority are artificial colours. Some aren’t as bad as others – I recommend downloading the Chemical Maze app to guide you.
#2 – Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners can be deceiving. You’ll often find them in ‘healthy’ food products that claim to be low-sugar, sugar-free, diet or low-calorie. If a product has one or more of these claims, it likely contains an artificial sweetener.
Artificial sweeteners are found in sugar-free lollies, chewing gum, diet and sugar-free soft drinks and diet jelly. But you can also find them hidden in sauces, jams, fruit juices and even vitamin gummies.
When reading food labels, artificial sweeteners are listed as numbers between 950-962. The worst offenders are aspartame (950) and saccharin (954). You can learn more about the side effects of these sweeteners in this previous article.
The interesting thing is that artificial sweeteners can actually make sugar cravings worse and lead to long-term weight gain. Studies have shown that people who move from regular soft drinks to diet soft drinks end up consuming more calories over the day. Because the brain registers the sweet taste without the energy from sugar, it demands more sweet things to meet its energy expectations.
#3 – Sugar
If you’re a regular reader, this won’t come as a surprise to you! I’m not saying that you can’t ever let your kids have sugar – I’d rather give my kids sugar over artificial food additives. But the statistics show that more than half of Aussie kids eat too much sugar. Sugar is linked to all sorts of chronic health conditions including obesity.
Sugar is obviously found in sweet foods. But you can also find it added to pasta sauces, marinades and dressings. So it’s important to be reading food labels to see which everyday foods contain added sugar.
But when it comes to reading food labels, spotting sugar can be tricky. There are over 40 different names for sugar on an ingredient list! You can see a list of the different names for sugar here.
But to make it easier to remember the more common ones – anything that ends in ‘-ose’ such as glucose, sucrose, dextrose and lactose are all types of sugar.
The other issue is that a nutritional panel can tell you how much sugar is in the food. But that amount is the total sugar – you don’t know how much is naturally in the food and how much is added. For example, dried fruit and milk have naturally occurring sugars.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid any products where sugar is listed in the first 3-4 ingredients. The ingredient list is in order of quantity, so the first ingredient makes up the greatest percentage of the food. If sugar is listed in the first few ingredients, it contains a lot of sugar. But if it’s listed in the last couple of ingredients, there is only a small amount added.
#4 – Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, corn, soy, canola and general ‘vegetable oil’ sound healthy. But these oils can actually promote inflammation in the body.
Many of the chronic health conditions I see in children such as eczema, asthma, autism, ADHD and allergies all have an inflammatory component. So consuming vegetable oils can exacerbate their symptoms.
Why are vegetable oils harmful? They are highly processed, but they are also high in omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-6 is an essential nutrient, but we consume too much of it in the Western diet. It is supposed to be balanced with omega-3s with a 1:1 ratio, but the current ratio is close to 20:1. One way to correct this ratio is to reduce the use of vegetable oils.
Using alternative oils in the kitchen is one way to reduce vegetable oil intake. You can switch for olive oil, coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter). I also like using macadamia oil for baking.
But many processed foods contain vegetable oils because they are cheap and increase the shelf life. When reading food labels, you want to look for the products that don’t use vegetable oils.
This is really hard – nearly everything in the supermarket has vegetable oil! Bread, wraps and crackers are particularly difficult to find vegetable oil-free options.
For wraps, the only option I have found is the Mountain Bread Wraps. For crackers, you can go for Cruskits, Ryvitas and the big rice cakes. When it comes to bread, I have to buy it from the farmers market, because I’m yet to find a supermarket option.
#5 – Fortified & Enriched Food Products
Fortified and enriched foods might sound like a good thing. We know that our kids need plenty of nutrition to grow up healthy and happy. But there is a good reason for this being on my ‘avoid’ list!
The problem with these foods is that these are highly processed, and the nutrients that are added back in are replacing those that are lost during processing. Think about the types of foods that are fortified – cereals with iron, juice with vitamin C, margarine with vitamin D. All of these foods would have those nutrients before they were processed.
For example, take a fortified flour. The bran and germ, where the fibre and nutrients are found, are removed. This gives the flour a finer texture and longer shelf life. But it is also highly refined and can spike blood sugar levels. The manufacturers add back in synthetic vitamins and minerals to make it look like a healthier alternative.
Another problem is that there can be too much of a good thing. A report showed that half of kids under 9 were getting too much of certain nutrients because of these fortified foods. Unlike wholefoods, the added nutrients are not balanced out.
But food marketers know that nutrients will sell products. They play on us as parents to want the best for our child’s health. But these fortified foods are no substitute for a wholefood-based diet. So I recommend avoiding them whenever possible.
Reading food labels is time-consuming. But the easiest way to avoid these 5 ingredients is to focus on wholefoods! Find out how you can add more wholefoods into your child’s diet with my ebook, 8 Essential Wholefood For Kids.