What's really in that food you're about to buy at the supermarket? Let's take a hypothetical salad dressing and follow me to find out what we can glean by simply reading down the list of ingredients on the back of the pack. This is the method I use to assess a new food product.
The order is important
All ingredients must be listed in order of decreasing weight. The first on the list is the largest, followed by the second, the third, and so on. Here's what can we deduce from this sample food label for a typical salad dressing:
Sample food label
French salad dressing with garlic
SUNFLOWER OIL (60%), WATER, VINEGAR (8%),
Start with the first ingredient ...
- The first thing we know is that the main ingredient is SUNFLOWER OIL, which makes up 60 per cent of weight or volume of the dressing.
- Then we spot WATER which we can work out is there at less than 60 per cent but more than 8 per cent. I'd venture to guess that water represents around 30 per cent of this dressing.
- After that comes VINEGAR with smaller quantities of SALT, SUGAR, FOOD ACID, GUM.
- Finally we note SPICE, HERBS, GARLIC, COLOUR and ANTIOXIDANT present only in minute amounts (similar to "a pinch" in a recipe).
Compare my simplified list of ingredients with one from a commercial French dressing below. Similar ingredients, just more of them!
Fat in disguise
On food labels, fat can appear as:
• vegetable oil (in snack foods and sauces)
• vegetable shortening (in muffins and cakes)
• baker's shortening (in pies, pastries and baked goods)
• a specific oil such as sunflower oil, canola oil, olive oil, etc
• coconut cream or coconut oil
Sugar in disguise
On food labels, sugar can appear as:
• sucrose (the chemical name for sugar) which is the sugar in cane sugar
• fructose (fruit sugar) which occurs naturally fruit and honey
• dextrose (another name for glucose)
• golden syrup
• concentrated pear juice
• refined fruit syrup
Rule of thumb: If some form of sugar appears as one of the first THREE ingredients, the food is generally high in added sugar.
What's a characterising ingredient?
A characterising ingredient is one which gives the food its character. For example:
- strawberries are the characterising ingredient of strawberry jam.
- almonds are the characterising ingredient of almond wafer biscuits.
- salt and vinegar are the characterising ingredients of chips with salt and vinegar.
The percentage of the key ingredient in a product MUST be shown in the list of ingredients. Remember it may not necessarily be the main ingredient in terms of weight.
In this salad dressing which is called "French salad dressing with garlic", there are 3 characterising ingredients:
- oil (which is 60 per cent of the dressing),
- vinegar (8 per cent)
- with garlic (1 per cent) giving it its flavour.
Checking for allergens
Some ingredients such as peanuts, seafood, fish, gluten, milk, soybeans and eggs can commonly trigger allergic reactions and so must be declared on the label. This is helpful for allergy sufferers. However it's not always smooth sailing.
While these allergens may not be part of the food, they may accidentally be in the food if it was manufactured in premises with other foods. Which explains those legalistic statements "May contain nuts" or "Made on premises that also manufacturers with nuts".