How to become your own food detective

By The Gut Health Doctor Team

Dr Megan Rossi in a lab looking through a microscope

With the rise in food manufacturers tapping into (gut) health trends and many making misleading claims on their packaging, as well as a lot of fear-mongering around ultra-processed foods (UPFs), it’s harder than ever to navigate what to eat. Although it’s quite clear that plants and whole foods are best, let’s face it: busy lives get in the way, and making everything from scratch is often unrealistic for most. So, do you struggle to know which convenience foods are worth adding to your basket?

Of course, not all food we eat needs to tick the health box, remember it’s about INclusion, not EXclusion. But it is frustrating to know that people are being tricked into making choices that they believe are healthier than they are. For example, many “all-natural” and “100% plant-based” bars contain over half of your daily recommended added sugar. Conversely, people are being put off from enjoying “processed” foods that can provide health benefits as part of a wider plant-based diet — for example, natural yoghurt is classified as “processed”.

Life would be easier if you could trust the branding and marketing of food products right? However, the sad reality is that manufacturers are very clever at capitalising on trends that will entice customers to buy their products. A lovely healthy-sounding name, pictures of plants or health benefit claims are alluring but the question is, will it actually benefit you (and your gut)?

On the other end of the spectrum are foods being demonised for being UPFs. The term UPF comes from the NOVA food classification system which places foods into four categories based on how much they have been processed during their production. UPFs typically have five or more ingredients (not including wholesome plant ingredients). The problem with categorising foods like these with the NOVA method is that foods, such as packaged pita bread, which can be a convenient addition to a healthy diet, are categorised along with less nutritious UPFs such as chicken nuggets and cookies. Pita bread is classified as UPF by the NOVA definition because alongside your standard wheat flour, yeast, water and salt (which would classify it as just ‘processed’) it also typically contains calcium propionate, which is a preservative added to prevent it going mouldy after a few days. The thing about calcium propionate is that while, yes it is an e-number, it’s also naturally found in some cheese. This is because during the ageing process of the cheese certain microbes produce it to prevent the growth of spoilage microbes. Similarly, ‘ascorbic acid’ (another e-number, yet naturally found in fruit and veg) which is the scientific name for vitamin C is added to foods to preserve their colour and freshness. Taken together, the current NOVA food classification system of UPF isn’t overly practical in terms of informing us about what is ‘healthy’ and what is not.

If you want to empower yourself, make informed decisions and become a ‘supermarket aisle Sherlock’ there’s just one clue worth following. Ignore the product’s name, appearance, classification, and claims — these are often red herrings that can throw you off the scent. Instead, head straight to the ingredient list. No magic marketing tricks are allowed here — all the ingredients must be listed from greatest to smallest by weight. This is the only way you can discover what it is that you’re really eating.

Here are 9 key things to look out for to become a true food detective!

Investigating the ingredients

A photo of vanilla extract

1. Flavouring doesn’t actually mean plant points. Although natural flavourings are typically derived from plants, offer flavour (without added sugar), and aren’t associated with negative outcomes, they don’t count towards plant points because they are not the whole plant. Check for whole plants on the back of the ingredients.

A photo of several foods on a table which are all high in protein such as meat, salmon, eggs and nuts.

2. Many products claim to be high in protein – but is that protein packaged with a bunch of food additives like sweeteners, and no fibre? Most likely, in which case go for nuts, kefir, yoghurt, tofu or even your humble egg sided with some fibre from plants instead.

A photo of coconut sugar in a bowl

3. Exotic-sounding forms of sugar like coconut blossom nectar and date syrup can make products sound healthy. But these are still types of added sugar that leave your gut microbes hangry. Discover the 50+ names for types of added sugar that exist… yes 50!

Look at the numbers

A photo of ingredients in measuring cups

4. Ingredients are listed from greatest to smallest by weight. So if a product promises healthy ingredients like oats, this should be near the top to reap all of those health benefits.

A photo of a list of ingredients

5. Keep a close eye on the top three ingredients. If you want to benefit nutritionally, you want to ensure these three come from whole foods reducing the proportion of the product that comes from refined ingredients, if any.

A photo of a food label with low sugar

6.What is the portion size? Many products are advertised as ‘low calorie’, ‘low sugar’ or ‘low salt’ but this is often based on an unrealistically tiny portion size (marketeers favourite trick!) so check the grams you would actually eat.

Packaging promises

A photo of two wooden spoons, one with artificial sweetener and another with sugar

7. Don’t assume that ‘no added sugar’ foods are automatically healthy. Some of these foods that claim they are ‘no added sugar’ are now starting to also claim gut health benefits, but they often contain artificial sweeteners which may actually be detrimental for your gut microbes.

A bowl of crisps

8. If a food is described as ‘light’, look carefully to determine what it’s lighter in. While most people may assume that means lighter in calories, that’s not always the case according to regulations. Take crisps for example, often they may be lighter in salt they may have more saturated fat to make up for that loss in flavour.

A close up shot of different types of candy

9. ‘Natural’ doesn’t necessarily equate to a product being good for you — marketeers often push this term to make a food sound more wholesome. This trick is typically used by the sweets industry despite them all containing at least 80% added sugar.

Illustration of a woman picking out a grain out of a tapestry of different types of plants to show plant diversity

Takeaway

It’s not about fixating on food labels and obsessing over every last ingredient, you should enjoy your food choices! Just be mindful so you don’t fall prey to clever marketing and manipulation that might try and convince you a product is ‘healthy’ when it’s not. Also, be cautious about those who demonise a food simply because it is processed. A lot of this is hype, so knowing how to decipher food labels is a good skill to have for life and will empower you to make the best decisions for you and your gut.

If you have personalised health goals that makes reading labels even more of a challenge, our team of specialist dietitians in the clinic can guide you through your individual needs and develop meal plans that suit you and your family!

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