Pre-packaged foods form a large part of the Ghanaian diet and come in various types of packaging including cans, glass, plastic and paper. Our use of pre-packaged foods is increasing and most of us consume more energy (and some nutrients) from them than we actually realise.
A wide variety of foods come in pre-packaged forms including fruit juices, breakfast beverages, soft drinks, canned fruits and vegetables, canned fish and beef, breakfast cereals, spreads, salad dressings, sauces, milk products, oils, biscuits, flours and starchy powders.
Labelling of pre-packaged foods in Ghana is regulated by “Guidelines for the labelling of pre-packaged foods (Ghana Food and Drug authority) and “The Codex Alimentarius” (FAO/WHO). These guidelines aim to ensure safety and quality of pre-packaged foods to protect the health of consumers.
How often do you take the trouble to read the labelling on your pre-packaged foods? Many of us would at best check expiry date and rely on known brands, colourful advertising and health and nutrient claims to guide our choices.
We may be putting our health at risk by ignoring food labels on pre-packaged foods. Concerns have been raised regarding the addition of excessive amounts of preservatives, non-nutritive ingredients, salt, sugar and fats to some pre-packaged foods and their potential negative impact on our health.
Despite these concerns, not all pre-packaged foods are bad for our health. If chosen carefully, they can contribute to a healthy diet, offer convenience and add to variety to our diet. However, very often, food labels contain so much information that it can be difficult to know what to look for and complex to understand.
Nutrition information on food labels
Nutrition information on food labels can help consumers make informed health-related decisions about their food choices and allow comparison of nutritional content of similar foods.
Not all labels on pre-packaged foods have nutrition information as it is not mandatory in Ghana. However, as a large proportion of pre-packaged foods on the Ghanaian market are imported, it is vital we have an understanding of nutrition information commonly displayed on pre-packaged foods around the world. Types of nutrition information on food labels include colour coding, nutrition tables, health and nutrient content claims and ingredients list.
What nutrition information should you look for on a food label?
First thing to look out for is the colour coding. This is a traffic light system on the front of the packaging of foods that tells you quickly if a food has a high, medium or low content of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. For healthier food options, you want to choose foods that have mostly green on the label for different components.
The estimate of how much your pre-packaged food contributes to your recommended daily diet may also appear on the label as a percentage (%) of Reference Intake (RI), Recommended daily amount (RDA) or Guideline daily amount (GDA).
Next thing to look out for is the nutrition tables. The nutrition table is often present at the back of the packaging of foods. This may provide information on typical values of energy (kJ/kcal), fat, saturates (saturated fat), carbohydrate, sugars, fibre, protein and salt per serving of the food or sometimes per 100 g. Bear in mind that although a food may seem healthy, you will still need to watch your portion sizes.
Energy is measured in ‘kJ’ and ‘kcal’ (calories). The value on the food label tells you how much energy the packaged food contains per portion or per 100 g. This allows you to judge the energy density of the food and how much to consume as part of a healthy diet. Energy-dense foods are more likely to lead to weight gain. The average daily energy needs for a woman is 2000 kcal and 2500 kcal for a man.
Total fat content of more than 17.5g per 100g is high and 3g of fat or less per 100g is low. For good health and weight, it is preferable to aim for foods with low fat content most of the time.
Saturates / Saturated fat is the main type of fat that contributes to high blood cholesterol. To manage or prevent high blood cholesterol, limit you intake of foods with more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.
Salt intake recommendation is no more than 6 g per day to decrease risk of high blood pressure. A high salt food contains more than 1.5g of salt per 100 g (or 0.6 g sodium) and a low salt food contains 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)
Total Sugar content of more than 22.5g per 100 g is high and can lead to weight gain in adults and tooth decay in young children. Choose low sugar foods of 5 g of or less per 100 g of the food product
Labelling terms to watch out
Ingredients are often listed in descending order of weight with the heaviest weight item first. Therefore if the first item is fat or sugar, then the food is a high in fat or sugar.
“Reduced fat” does not necessarily mean low fat. For example, reduced fat versions of high fat foods such as butter, mayonnaise or cheese may still be very high in fat.
“Light" or "lite" on a food label indicates a lower fat or lower calorie version compared to the original version of the food. However, this does not mean it is a low fat or low calorie food.
No added sugar or unsweetened on a food label does not mean no sugar in the food. It means sugar has not been added as an ingredient, however, the food may still be naturally high in sugar such as pure fruit juices.
Health claims on packaged foods such as “cholesterol lowering”, “healthy” and “good for you” are required to be backed up by scientific and documented evidence. Food labels are not allowed by most regulating authorities such as the European Commission, Codex Alimentarius, Food and Drug board of Ghana and U.S. Food and Drug Administration to claim to treat or cure medical conditions.
Benefits of reading nutrition information
Getting into the habit of reading the nutrition information on food labels can help improve your eating habits. Multiple studies have shown that people who frequently read food labels eat a healthier diet.
People who use the nutrition information on food labels to guide their choices of pre-packaged foods tend to eat less calories, less total fat, less saturated fat, less sodium, less sugar and more fibre than people who don't use food labels. These findings are enough good motivation for us all to develop the habit of reading food labels.
Familiarise yourself with food labels today in order to make better food choices for your health.