10 foods: what their labels say, and what they should say

More accurate labels for these foods would say ‘battery-farmed chicken’, ‘sugar-sweetened bagels’, ‘50 per cent sugar’


You need a calculator, quite a lot of time and possibly a pair of reading glasses to decipher food labels in supermarkets. Those confusing bits of small print are the outcome of years of lobbying and legal wrangling between a food industry that wants to sell products and a public-health lobby that wants consumers to be informed about what they’re buying.

A lot of money goes into designing attractive food packaging, photographing ingredients, deploying trigger words such as “natural”, “low fat” and “added vitamins”.

Until recent years most of the Irish laws on food labelling dated from the 1970s. A raft of changes in EU labelling regulations are coming into effect in 2016. From December 13th manufacturers will have to provide nutritional information on the back of all food products. (The at-a-glance information on the front remains a voluntary part of food labelling.) But there will still be no standardised system across all labels.

“So you have different systems, colour codes, font sizes. Some cereals use 30g for a bowl; others say 40g,” says Janis Morrissey, a dietician with the Irish Heart Foundation. It’s very difficult to follow, she adds, “and it’s adding to consumer confusion”.

When it comes to sugar the information gets truly complex. Many products in Irish supermarkets carry figures showing the percentage of your daily recommended sugar intake that is contained in a serving of that food.

But what is the daily recommended sugar intake? Some are calculated on the basis of a recommended level of 90g of sugar a day – the British NHS recommendation for “total sugars”, including sugar from milk or fruit. The “added sugar” element of that 90g total is just 30g, so the percentage of your daily sugar allowance in a serving if you calculate it as a proportion of your “added sugar” would be significantly higher than the percentage listed.

Six years after a traffic-light system was debated, Ireland still has no policy on nutritional information. We’re regulated from Brussels but sell products from different jurisdictions that adopt different labelling policies.

Some of our foods follow a traffic-light system: a high fat, salt or sugar content is highlighted with red; a medium-rated content is flagged with amber; and a low fat, salt or sugar content is highlighted with green.

This system, which was developed in the UK, is disputed by the food industry. Other EU member states also oppose it; Italy, for example, fears that Parmesan will get a red traffic light because of the cheese’s fat content. The EU will review these voluntary schemes next year.

The food industry calls the traffic-light system complicated and confusing. “There are no good or bad foods,” the head of Kellogg in Europe told The Irish Times in 2010, when a traffic-light system was being discussed here. The health lobby lost that battle at European level.

The Irish Heart Foundation says the Department of Health is exploring a traffic-light labelling system as part of its policy on obesity. “We have a sense they’re going to be looking at the whole area of food labelling again,” says Morrissey.

She believes it would make sense for Ireland, as the UK’s neighbour, to adopt a traffic-light system too. The Irish Heart Foundation wants a simple, standardised and mandatory food-labelling system.

Last month the industry giant Mars Food threw another idea into the mix when it said it would label some of its products “occasional”, indicating to consumers that they are not to be eaten every day. The products, which make up about 5 per cent of its range, include Dolmio pasta sauces, pesto, and ready-meal kits.

The “occasional” label is based on guidelines from health authorities including the World Health Organisation.

But even if you know how to read a label the information it contains is not always accurate. This week food scientists working for Teagasc at University College Cork said they found that one in four bacon and ham products contained more salt than their labels stated. And last year the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had 192 complaints about incorrect food labelling.

After long years of wrangling at EU level, one of the failures of the food-labelling fight, according to the Irish Heart Foundation, is food companies’ continuing ability to make health claims for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

The “healthy halo” is employed in food marketing, particularly of foods aimed at children, such as dairy products and cereals.

To help restrict the marketing to children of such foods, the World Health Organisation developed the nutrient-profile system, which uses simple terms such as “high fat”, “low fat”, “reduced fat”, “high in fat, sugar or salt” etc. Public-health lobbyists tried to get the EU to ban health claims for foods high in fat, sugar and salt, but “very recently the EU voted not to define nutrient profiles”, Morrissey says.

It’s a David and Goliath struggle, according to Morrissey, and the food-industry lobby far outpunches public-health advocates. In the meantime the consumer is left to go figure.

The 10 products featured here contain some of the most common examples of confusing food labelling.

WKLABELS_1_WEBTesco Original Bagels
The largest words after the name of this product are beside a stylised flower with the clear words “Low in fat”. In much smaller writing we see two amber and two green labels. The amber indicates a medium level of sugar in this plain bagel. One bagel gives you a fifth of your recommended daily sugar intake if you’re a woman, just under a sixth for a man. (And that’s before you slather it in strawberry jam.) Sugar is listed as the fourth ingredient, after wheat flour, water and rye flour.
What it should say: Tesco Original Sugar-Sweetened Bagels

WKLABELS_2_WEBDenny Deli Style Crumbed Ham
This ham, with its yellow crumb coating, is labelled “The taste of home”. Another label says: “Made in County Wicklow.” That’s as Irish as it gets, yes? Well, no. It was processed in Wicklow, so the label is accurate, but we don’t know the meat’s country of origin. Under EU labelling laws, this could have come from an Irish pig or a Dutch, German or British pig. The source of the meat changes according to the prices of pork. It’s the taste of somebody’s home, just maybe not one in Ireland.
What it should say: Denny Deli Style Crumbed Ham. The taste of home. Country of origin: Poland or Germany or the Netherlands . . .

WKLABELS_3_WEBGo Ahead! Yogurt Breaks
This is a classic example of confusing “healthy” food packaging. The product is dried fruit, inside a wafer, topped with yogurt. A speech bubble on the pack tells us there are 73 calories per slice. You might need a calculator to decipher the “at a glance” nutritional information on the front. It works out at 39g of sugar per 100g. Some of these are the natural sugars in the fruit, but this puts Go Ahead! firmly in the red category for sugar content. (A high-sugar snack is anything that has 15g of sugar or more per 100g. These have more than treble that.)
What it should say: Go Ahead! - but not too often

WKLABELS_4_WEBKelkin Organic Buckwheat Flakes
These are the healthy choice, according to the “Free from Gluten & Wheat” label. But with 8.7g of sugar per 100g, this cereal would be in the amber, “medium” category under the traffic-light system. These organic, gluten-free flakes contain almost as much sugar as Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes, which each have 10g of sugar per 100g. They contain two kinds of sugar: organic cane sugar and organic maize glucose - another way to describe corn syrup.
What it should say: Kelkin Organic Buckwheat Flakes with Added Sugar

WKLABELS_5_WEBJust Free Gluten Free Pepperoni Pizza
Gluten-free foods are a huge growth sector despite the fact that very few of us are unlucky enough to suffer from coeliac disease. The Just Free range is Lidl’s selection of gluten-free products, bought not only by coeliacs but probably also by health-conscious eaters who want to make better food choices. But when you use gluten-free flour you need to add a lot of other things to get the texture and flavour of bread dough. There’s sugar in this pizza base, plus xanthan gum and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose (a food additive also used in tile adhesive, cement and paint). Yum. The final ingredient is “smoke flavour”.
What it should say: Just Free Gluten Free Pepperoni Pizza with Added Sugar, Flavours and Stabilisers

WKLABELS_6_WEBOld El Paso Smoky BBQ Seasoning Mix for Fajitas
Things don’t get more savoury than smoke and barbecue, do they? Well, no. Sugar is the main ingredient in this pack of spices. Confusingly, the grams of sugar are given in the at-a-glance labelling on the front per eighth of a pack, or 4.3g of seasoning. But on the back you’ll read that the contents of this sachet are more than half sugar. To save money you could ditch the sachet and just sprinkle sugar and spices on the chicken yourself. But that would probably feel weird.
What it should say: Old El Paso Sugar-Sweetened Seasoning Mix

WKLABELS_7_WEBYoplait Petits Filous Frubes
These look like the perfect food. Kids generally love them, and they “now” have “50 per cent of daily vitamin D”, with calcium for strong bones and “no added colours or sweeteners”. But, after milk and water, sugar is the third ingredient in Frubes, making up 7 per cent. Add a second sugar, fructose, at 2.8 per cent, as well as the naturally occurring lactose in the milk, and Frubes are 12.8 per cent sugars, which is edging out of amber traffic-light territory and into red. Public-health lobbyists tried to get Europe to ban health claims being put on sugary foods. The food industry lobbied back and won.
What it should say: Zero health claims. Just Yoplait Petits Filous Frubes Sugar-Sweetened Yogurt

WKLABELS_8_WEBBallymanor Fresh Irish Chicken
Ballymanor looks like a lovely place. There’s a meadow with clover sprouting between the blades of green grass where a big fat feathery chicken wanders around. In one corner of the field an old-school tractor sits parked. More hens cluck happily in grass around the front of a timber shed. But Ballymanor isn’t a farm where happy chickens roam fragrant meadows. It’s Lidl’s Irish chicken label. It puts it on all its chickens, free range and factory reared. Most of the Ballymanor range comes from battery sheds where chickens never feel grass or soil under their feet.
What it should say: Battery-Farmed Chicken – How Else Could It Cost €3.19?

WKLABELS_9_WEBTayto Bistro Crushed Sea Salt & Aged Vinegar Flavour Potato Crisps
The ageing of balsamic vinegar involves a set of barrels, an attic and decades of patient waiting and syphoning of syrupy liquid from one barrel to the next. The result is vinegar that can sell for upwards of €50 for a small bottle. Crisp manufacturers are increasingly borrowing the halo of that hand-made, “artisan” food to make the powdered flavourings they sprinkle on their products sound like expensive, hand-crafted ingredients. The actual ingredients don’t list aged vinegar, just salt and vinegar flavour consisting of “flavourings (barley), salt, yeast extract, rice flour, maltodextrin, sugar, acidity regulator (sodium acetate), citric acid.”
What it should say: Salt and Vinegar Crisps with Added Sugar

WKLABELS_10_WEBTesco Finest Hand Cooked Lightly Sea Salted Crisps
How precisely do you “hand-cook” a crisp? Asbestos gloves? Oompa Loompas with nonflammable hands? The label on the back tells us that these potatoes are “fried in small batches under the watchful eye of specially trained fryers. They stir each batch gently, select the best crisps, then tumble them carefully in seasoning for a perfectly even coating.” As far-fetched food stories go this one takes the biscuit.
What it should say: Salted Crisps

Six steps to cracking food labelling

1: Look for the small print. The big words are the ones the food manufacturer is using to sell its product. They will tell you only the good news. The nutritional information on the back - or on the bottom: it sometimes takes a bit of finding - will tell you the full story. EU laws that come into force in December mean the print for nutritional information must be at least 0.9mm or 1.2mm tall, depending on the size of the packet. So you won’t need a magnifying glass - but this is still small print.

2: Know your numbers. Do you know your reference intakes (RIs) from your guideline daily amounts (GDAs)? We’re deep in jargon here. Reference intakes have replaced GDAs on British packaging. They’re basically the same thing: they give the total grams per day of fats, carbohydrates, sugars, protein and salt that an average person should eat. So the NHS recommends 90g of “total sugars”, which includes natural sugars in milk and fruit. That means no more than 30g a day of “added sugar” foods like cereals, yogurts and drinks. Unhelpfully, some food manufacturers give the added sugar in products as a percentage of the 90g, not the 30g.

3: Forget RIs and GDAs: use the traffic light system. The Irish Heart Foundation’s food-shopping card can help decipher the amount of sugar, fat and salt in a product: the amount of each should be highlighted with green, amber or red. If you see a red light, look again at whether you should eat this in large amounts, as a daily staple.

4: Spot the sugar: it comes with many names. Ingredients ending in “ose” are sugars, so that includes sucrose, fructose and dextrose. Then there’s high-fructose corn syrup, honey, fruit-juice concentrate, corn syrup or just plain syrup.

5: Take a long, hard look at “free from” foods. There’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to making something taste good after you remove a key ingredient. For decades manufacturers replaced fat with sugar to sell “fat free” foods. These turned out to make us fat. Now the free-from world has grown to include gluten, refined sugar and dairy. Check the ingredients list on the back of the pack to see what has been used to replace these.

6: See past the pictures. Whether it’s a meadow on the label of a battery chicken or a lovingly lit photograph featuring only the healthy ingredients, pictures can be a long way from the reality of the ingredients or the real picture of how the foods are produced.

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