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The label readers' guide


The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic

The following article comes from the New Zealand Childrens’ Food Awards.

Take a child through a supermarket and unless they're sleeping, chances are you'll invariably hear whining as they plead for certain items to go in your basket.

Unfortunately it's not often the fresh fruit and vegetable section that sparks a gleam in their bright little eyes.

Fuelled by an addict's desire for sugar, salt, fat and luridly coloured concoctions, even the most angelic of ankle-biters can become vicious as you attempt to wrestle sweets and potato chips back onto the shelves.

Sickly Sweet

Obesity and sugar consumption are both on the rise, with the World Health Organisation warning of an obesity epidemic in children and recommending free (added) sugar should not exceed 10-percent of the calories in normal daily food intake.

Sugar is added to an incredible range of processed foods, including savoury items such as tomato sauce, while some portions of breakfast cereals have been found to contain the same levels of sugar as confectionary.

A Green Party survey of basic foods marketed at children found some cereals and muesli bars are more than 50-percent sugar by weight.

How can you tell the amount of sugar in a food product?

If ‘total sugar’ is given on the label in grams, divide that number by four and you’ll get the approximate number of teaspoons of sugar in that food. Reading a food label to find how much sugar a product contains, can be confusing as the sugar can be disguised under a variety of names such as sucrose, invert sugar, maltose, maple syrup, glucose, dextrose, golden syrup, lactose, fructose, honey, glucose syrup, brown sugar, fruit juices, sorbital, mannitol and zylitol. A product labelled as unsweetened, legally contains no sugars other than those found naturally in the food.

Low-sugar foods should contain less than 5-percent of their energy from sugars.
A product boasting "no added sugar" may still be naturally high in sugar.

In a US-controlled study, it was found there was a strong link between rising obesity in children and soft drink consumption. The risk of becoming obese was found to increase by 1.6 times for every additional can or glass of sugar-sweetened drink habitually consumed daily. Consumption of soft drinks in the US has increased 500-percent in 50 years, and it is estimated the average American eats more than 32 teaspoons of added sugar each day.

In New Zealand soft drink consumption has also increased dramatically, with soft-drink vending machines placed in most schools in the country.

The New Zealand Health Ministry says free sugars should give people no more than 15-percent of their energy, while the UK Government recommends sugar and fatty foods should make up no more than seven-percent of our diets.

In New Zealand, however, food advertising accounts for 25-40 percent of advertisements during children's viewing times on television and the kinds of food advertised are predominately those high in fat, sugar and salt.

Sugar can cause tooth decay and is linked to diabetes, hyperactivity and obesity.

Be wary of products claiming they contain real fruit — check the sugar content on the label as some contain excessive amounts of added sugar. High sugar foods are often low in other important nutrients.

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Full o' Fat

With obesity reaching epidemic proportions, the need to monitor our daily intake of fat is more important than ever.

Fat is necessary for life. It is a key source of energy and assists vitamins such as A, D and E in their functions. It also provides our food with flavour. Unfortunately, our taste for fat has reached dangerous levels and New Zealanders have one of the highest fat intakes in the world.

Knowing the difference between the beneficial essential fatty acids (EFAs) and the harmful fats is of crucial importance for health and longevity. Most people consume too much saturated fat in their diet. Saturated fats are high in take-away and many processed foods, particularly snack foods such as potato chips.

Too much saturated fat is linked to high cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart and blood vessel disease. It also leads to all sorts of other problems, from obesity to diabetes and joint problems. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature.

Try to avoid saturated fats in your diet such as saturated fats in processed meat, fatty meat, lard, butter, margarine, solid vegetable shortening, chocolate and tropical oils such as coconut and palm oil.

Fats can be disguised on food labels under many different names: margarine, hydrogenated vegetable oil, partially hydrogentated oil, butter, lard, oils, animal fat, vegetable fat, mono-, di-, or triglycerides, polyunsaturated oil and monounsaturated oil.

There is general agreement that we shouldn't take in more than 30% of our calories as fat with only 10% of total calories provided by saturated fats. Trans-fats (principally hydrogenated polyunsaturated fats) should be included in the 10% quota for saturated fats. Trans-fats are produced commercially in large quantities to harden vegetable oils into shortening and margarine, making liquid fats solid at room temperature.

The oils used to cook french fries and other fast food are usually this kind of partially hydrogenated oil, containing trans fats. Cookies, crackers, snack foods and pastries are other sources of trans-fats. Commercial baked goods frequently include hydrogenated fats to protect against spoilage.

There is some controversy about trans-fats which, like saturated fats, have been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in epidemiological studies.

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Salty Supreme

It is suspected New Zealand children are eating far more salt than is good for them although the Ministry of Health has no statistics available on how much is consumed. Nor does it give a recommended daily intake to guide people on how much salt to eat.

In the UK however, a report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (adopted by the Food Standards Agency) recommends that children reduce their salt intake by a third, and that children under three should consume no more than 2g of salt a day. Because processed foods contain such high levels of salt, a child will almost certainly exceed that limit without a closely monitored diet.

For example, it was found two slices of bread with Marmite, or a small can of Heinz pasta shapes, or a Burger King children’s meal all exceeded the limit.

Approximately 75% of salt in the diet comes in the form of processed food.
It is difficult to read some labels for salt content as it is called the sodium value. Salt is used as an additive to bring out the flavour of foods, and is added to most products — from breakfast cereals, to soups, breads, baked beans, biscuits and sauces.

High levels of salt are linked to high blood pressure, which is the main cause of strokes and a major cause of heart attacks. Excess salt has also been linked to calcium loss leading to osteoporosis, and can put strain on a young child’s kidneys.

To see if a product is high in salt, compare the amount per 100gm (or per serving if that is larger) with the following UK guidelines:

Salt more than 1.25g is a lot less than 0.25g is a little
Sodium* more than 0.5g is a lot less than 0.1g is a little

*One gram of sodium is equivalent to 2.5 grams of salt.

For the first time, UK recommendations for target levels of salt intake have
been set for children according to age.

Age Target intake

0-6 months Less than 1
7-12 months 1
1-3 years 2
4-6 years 3
7-10 years 5
11-14 years 6

The Nutritionless Nightmare Award

Because of their lower body weight, children actually eat more food (relative to their size) than adults. They eat more snack foods, pre-sweetened cereals, and other highly processed foods than adults.

This means they consume, in relation to their weight, a higher dose of additives, pesticides and other chemicals than adults. With their fast-growing bodies and minds, it is essential that children receive the right nutrients in their food.

From the time they are weaned from milk, they should begin eating a balanced diet that provides the five essential nutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins.

A good supply of calcium, iron and vitamins A and D is also necessary during this time. Calcium is needed for healthy tooth development and with vitamin D, helps make bones stronger.

Although children have a high energy requirement for their size, it is very important they are not fed a sugary, or fatty diet or a lot of ‘convenience’ foods such as pizza, tinned spaghetti, chips, burgers and processed meats.

Highly processed foods are usually nutritionally empty and consist of nothing more than fat, sugar, salt and chemicals.

Because children have smaller stomachs, small, frequent meals are better than a couple of large servings each day, and the food should be a good mixture of fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, some diary products and fresh meat or fish.

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Label Fables

With modern food often so highly processed and packaged, the only way you can sometimes tell what’s gone in it, is to read the ingredient label.

In theory labels should tell consumers everything they need to know. By law, every package of food must have an ingredients list that describes what is in the product, in sufficient detail to enable the consumer to understand the "true nature of the food."

In reality, however, many labels are hard to understand and can leave us feeling confused and frustrated.

Most additives don’t have to be listed by name. Some additives don’t have to be labelled at all, and the largest category of additives (flavourings) don’t have to be listed individually.

To add to the frustration, ingredients can be disguised on the food label. The amount of sugar or fat in a particular product, for example, can be hidden by listing them under a variety of names and manufacturers can also claim a food has no added sugar when it is naturally high in sugar.

Manufacturers use labels as advertising tools and may conceal information they would rather you didn’t know. They may claim a product such as processed meat is manufactured in New Zealand, for example, when it contains imported ingredients.

They may say a food is preservative-free, when it contains antioxidants and additives, or they may claim a fruit juice or muesli-bar is bursting with fruit when the ingredient label shows there is less than 10-percent real fruit in it.

A manufacturer could boast a snack-food is lightly salted when it is actually high in salt or a product called crab-sticks could be sold without containing any crabmeat.

There are many label loopholes to beware of:

Some foods and drinks, including takeaway foods, milk, cream, alcohol and unwrapped food doesn’t have to be labelled with a list of ingredients.

Some additives don’t have to be declared. Several thousand don’t have to be individually identified but labelled under ‘flavouring’.

Manufacturers don’t have to declare whether a food contains GE processing aids or food additives.

There’s no law requiring mandatory ‘country-of-origin’ labelling. This means it’s up to individual retailers to tell you whether your meat, vegetables, fruit and fish have been imported or locally grown.

Just because a label may declare a food free from artificial flavours, for example, does not mean the product is free from artificial colours or preservatives and other additives.

Words to watch out for on labels:

It is illegal to mislead consumers yet there are no legal definitions for many words used to sell food — such as fresh, wholesome, natural, real or genuine. However, the Commerce Commission has said a food labelled as "natural" should not contain additives such as flavouring, colouring or preservatives.

Up to five-percent of sugar can be added to juice and it may still label itself as "unsweetened". Fruit juices only need to contain five-percent juice to be described as a fruit drink.

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Children's Chemical Cocktail Award

With their bright colours and sweet flavours, it’s no wonder most children would rather drink packaged drinks than plain water. The range of prepared drinks available to children is staggering, and so is the confusing array of ingredients often listed on the labels.

Children are especially vulnerable to the chemicals they ingest. Their digestive systems are still immature and their kidneys and liver are not yet fully developed.

This means they may absorb toxins more readily into their bodies, while their detoxification systems are less efficient at eliminating harmful chemicals.

Because their immune systems are not fully developed either, their bodies aren’t necessarily producing all the antibodies they need, while the blood/brain barrier doesn’t mature until children reach their adolescence. This makes them far more vulnerable to the effect of substances that cause nervous system damage.

International health agencies recognise how vulnerable children are to the foods they eat, which is why they recommend young children up to three years of age are fed baby foods free from residues of hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and containing as few additives as possible.

Even weaning and supplementary foods do not permit any synthetic colours, preservatives, nitrates or artificial sweeteners.

And yet most children from around the age of one eat a diet that increasingly resembles that of adults. As well as eating biscuits, chips, snack foods, processed meats and lollies, they’re frequently served soft drinks that contain a cocktail of additives banned from baby foods.

As well as water, there’s often sugar or artificial sweeteners and different flavours, colours, additives, acidity regulators and preservatives, not to mention dissolved carbon dioxide to make some drinks fizz. Energy drinks and some other soft drinks often contain caffeine which can cause hyperactivity in children.

Because of a child’s lesser body weight, a can of soft drink containing caffeine drunk by a four-year-old is the equivalent of up to two cups of coffee drunk by an adult.

While cordials, energy drinks and soft drinks are not marketed as healthy or nutritious, there is a perception that many juices are good for you. Check the label! Many juices have high quantities of added sugar, colour, preservatives and processing aids such as gelatine or casein added.

Only "pure" juice and "fresh" juice must contain no additives or preservatives.

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Terrific Tuckshop Award

Schools on tight budgets have been seduced by the wolf in lamb’s clothing as corporations step in offering sports equipment branded with their logos, advertising in exercise books and offering commissions for the placement of snack and soft-drink vending machines on school property.

This is ironical when children are being taught the importance of eating a healthier diet. Schools may benefit financially from various sponsorship deals but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. At the end of the day, food manufacturers have simply tapped into yet another way to market their products at children.

And yet some responsible schools have turned their back on the junk food industry by creating health policies that include the banning of soft drink vending machines from playgrounds, and replacing items such as chocolate and chips with low fat/low sugar snacks in school canteens.

Such health food policies reinforce the lessons children are receiving about staying healthy and show a commitment to the welfare of our youth. Teachers claim children also have better concentration levels when they eat nutritious, healthy food.

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Clean, Green Food

What’s a clean, green food?
For a start, let’s look at what it’s not!

It’s not genetically engineered; nor does it contain GE processing aids or food additives. It’s free from preservatives, artificial colours and flavours, and contains no, or very little, added sugar and salt.

It contains organic ingredients and has had minimal processing, and it’s healthy and nutritious, providing the vitamins, minerals, protein and energy your child needs to grow.

It also has a minimal amount of packaging, and ideally, it’s made in New Zealand, and if there’s a label, it tells you all the information you need to know.

It’s a good idea to support our local growers and producers whenever we can — and it means the food’s often fresher.

As well as that, have you considered the amount of energy consumed to bring an item of food from the field to your plate? The food miles a product clocks up when it’s brought halfway around the world can be staggering.

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Funky Munch

With their speedy metabolisms and growth spurts, children need regular, small snacks to prevent the extreme hunger that can lead to overeating.

Unfortunately, many snacks are nothing more than a cocktail of additives, sugar, fat and preservatives, offering nothing in nutrition or value to children’s bodies.

Most of them are brightly packaged, however, and have catchy television advertisements attached to their image and contain colours and flavours that a freshly picked apple, for example, just can’t compete with.

Fun, healthy snack foods do exist though. Sometimes you need to think creatively to enhance a healthy food’s appeal to a child, whether it’s chopping carrots into sticks, cutting apples into quarters or serving frozen grapes.

There are also some food manufacturers out there creating the sorts of children’s snack products that are healthy and fun, resulting in happy parents and children.

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GE Genie

Despite the fact that genetically engineered foods do not have to undergo proper safety-testing, there are hundreds of GE ingredients throughout our food supply.

It’s difficult to tell whether many of the food products on our supermarket shelves contain GE ingredients or not because we have such an inadequate GE labelling scheme that hundreds of products containing GE oils, starches, colourings, additives and other processing aids can remain, unlabelled, in food.

If you are in any doubt about a food product, ring the manufacturer and ask whether their products are free from GE, or get hold of the Greenpeace GE Guide, or MADGE GE guide. Both of these guides list companies the companies that have accepted that consumers don’t want to be guinea pigs in this vast, uncontrolled food experiment, and produce foods that are GE free.

Other food manufacturers, however, continue to use GE ingredients in their food or will neither confirm nor deny whether they use this technology.

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Best Breakfast:

Some of the breakfast foods marketed at children are so high in added sugar and colour, and so lacking in fibre and nutrients, it’s surprising they’re not marketed as a dessert.

It’s important that children go to school with a decent breakfast in their bellies. Their concentration is better, they have energy to learn, and they’re not likely to be hungry for junk food snacks during their breaks.

Because of their smaller stomachs, children don’t need as much fibre as adults, but it’s also important they eat a breakfast that’s not too low in fibre either.

The American Heart Foundation recommends you follow the ‘age + 5/10grams a day’ rule. For example, a five-year old would eat between 5-10g of fibre while a 15-year old should have 20-25g per day.

A breakfast high in carbohydrates usually offers the best ‘fuel’ for your child to get going. The food should also be low in salt and if you’re going for a muesli, check the fat content. While you’re reading the label, also check to see if the grains in your breakfast food are wholegrain. This means the cereal is less processed and the vitamins, minerals and phytograins in the grain are still largely intact.

And the winners are....

Results of the 2005 New Zealand Childrens Food Awards

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic