Ideally, your food should come without ingredient labels – as whole foods. But I accept that few of us have time to create all our food from scratch. So, you need to become a label detective.
If ever there were labels that mattered, it’s the ones on the food we eat and the liquid we drink. Yet most of us lead busy lives with little time to spare for reading the small print on food labels.
It’s a habit worth getting into though. Once you begin reading labels you could be in for a big surprise – you probably had no idea you were putting so many chemicals into your body.
Your supermarket shop may take a longer the first couple of times. You’ll have to get used to the ingredient terms used and brand differences. You may even find it useful to make notes that you can refer to as you shop. But once you are familiar with the best brands to buy, whizzing round the aisles for the healthiest foods will become a breeze.
1. Back to basics
When you read the labels on your food and drinks and make different choice about what you buy, you will be reducing the amount of sugar, artificial sweeteners, colours, preservatives and other additives. You are then likely to be eating foods in their more whole, natural state. This will naturally help you increase your intake of vitamins and minerals. Making sure you are getting at least your five a day fruit and vegetables is also going to help increase your intake of important nutrients.
Go for a rainbow of colours and you’ll increase the range of nutrients you’re taking in. Pick a new vegetable to try each week.
Most of our food can be acidic especially animal protein so when you are choosing a bottled water think about going for one that is naturally alkaline above 7.
Also, water can supply you with important minerals like calcium and magnesium so drinking good amounts of water each day can increase your nutrient intake.
Choose mineral water with a low sodium as we often get enough sodium in the form of sodium chloride salt in our diet. If the water is also low in nitrates that is an added bonus. Nitrates are pollutants that enter the water supply from fertilisers that run off the fields.
2. Look at the label
The ingredients on a label are listed with the first ingredient having the greatest quantity and the last having the least quantity in that product. Unfortunately, most labels do not tell us exactly how much of each ingredient is in the food: so, one fish pie could contain more fish than another and we wouldn’t know.
It is best to avoid ingredients which sound like a chemistry lesson.
For example, these are the contents of one brand of apricot dessert:
So, we immediately know that the ingredient with the greatest quality in this dessert is sugar. But have you spotted something even more important? Where are the apricots? Common sense should tell us that this isn’t a very natural or healthy food.
3. Why water counts
Water is the best liquid to be drinking. Let’s not forget this very simple, natural drink.
Our bodies are made up of approximately 70 per cent water and water is involved in every bodily process including digestion, absorption, circulation and excretion. We can survive without food for about five weeks, but we can’t go without water for longer than five days. Water is essential for carrying waste out of the body; it helps with constipation and also helps maintain body temperature.
If a carton or bottle has ‘fruit drink’ on the label, then you know that something else has been added. Some fruit drinks can contain only five per cent fruit, while the rest is made up of water, sugar and additives. You should treat flavoured waters and cordials with caution as many contain a surprising amount of added sugar or artificial sweeteners. The same is true of quashes like orange squash which can contain refined sugar, glucose syrup or a number of artificial sweeteners.
Bottled water comes in many guises so here is a short guide to help you understand what you are buying. Choose glass bottles or BPA free recyclable plastic.
Spring Water– may have been taken from one or more underground sources and have undergone a range of treatments, such as filtration and blending.
NaturalMineral Water– bottled in its natural underground state and untreated in any way. It has to come from an officially registered source, conform to purity standards and carry details of its source and mineral analysis on the label.
Naturally Sparkling Water– water from its underground source with enough natural carbon dioxide to make it bubbly.
Sparkling (carbonated) Water– has had carbon dioxide added to it during bottling, the same as with ordinary fizzy drinks.
4.Why naturally sparkling mineral water trumps soda water
(with artificially CO2 added)
Soda water is carbonated water when carbon dioxide has been added to it during bottling to give it its fizz. This is different from club soda which is also carbonated but has other ingredients added including sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). It may also have other forms of sodium and potassium added.
Naturally sparkling mineral water is completely natural. It is water from the underground source with just enough natural carbon dioxide to make it bubbly. This natural carbon dioxide helps in the absorption of the naturally occurring minerals in the water.
5.Water and health
Your body is two-thirds water and it provides the means for nutrients to travel to organs and toxins to be removed. In addition, it helps your body metabolise stored fat, so it is crucial for weight management.
The usual recommendation is to drink at least one and a half litres (six to eight glasses) of water a day. Water is lost through urination, respiration and sweating and symptoms of mild dehydration include joint pain, irritability, headache, reduced concentration, dizziness, tension, swollen ankles and a bloated stomach. A strong odour to urine, along with a yellow or amber colour can be an indicator of dehydration, as well as the obvious sign of thirst (although in fact often the body needs water long before it registers it is thirsty).
Water intake would need to increase if you drink alcohol, tea, coffee and caffeinated fizzy drinks as these will dehydrate your body. Intake should also be increased if you are exercising a lot, travelling by plane, eating a lot of salty foods or in a hot environment.
Water (fluid retention) is a problem for many women and is often worse just before a period. Don’t be tempted to limit your intake of water, which can actually cause more bloating. Your body will think it needs to conserve water, which exacerbates the problem. Water is a natural diuretic and it should be drunk as frequently as possible, particularly when you are retaining water. Cut down on your intake of salt, which can encourage water retention.
6.How to get more energy in the darker months
It’s that time of the year again when you want to do all you can to keep your energy up and keep those nasty bugs and infections doing the rounds at bay during the darker months.
Make sure you are well nourished eat little and often, not missing meals. Being on a roller coaster of blood sugar ups and downs throughout the day will affect your energy. Make sure you eat little and often, no longer than three hours without eating. This not only keeps your energy levels stable but also your blood sugar. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner plus a snack mid-morning and one mid-afternoon, with no longer than three hours between.
Your body and immune system also relies on water. It carries nutrients to your cells, carries waste and toxins away from your cells and out of your body, keeps body temperature stable, protects joints and keeps the lining of your mouth hydrated and moist, reducing susceptibility to colds. Drinking plenty of water will also help your body deliver nutrients, flush out waste and dilute mucus, helping eliminate bacteria and viruses that can make you ill. You can feel tired if you are thirsty and being dehydrated can zap your energy. So make sure you are drinking enough through the winter.
7.Consider E numbers
As a general guide, I recommend you avoid products with E numbers. Some are fine to eat, as they are naturally derived, but the vast majority are not, and many have known side effects. The best action is simply to avoid the processed products containing them.
E numbers include permitted colours (some natural, some not), preservatives, permitted antioxidants (some natural, such as ascorbic acid or vitamin C, others not), emulsifiers and stabilisers, sweeteners, solvents, mineral hydrocarbons and modified starches. Some products might list natural annatto colouring on the label, for instance. This is labelled E160b and has no known adverse side effects.
8.Watch out for the artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals, they are not natural. Artificial sweeteners are used in a wide variety of foods and drinks. They have an obvious advantage for manufacturers in that they are much cheaper than sugar and, in some, cases, sweeter. Saccharin, for instance, is 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Artificial sweeteners can have a negative effect on the beneficial bacteria in your gut. We already know that gut bacteria have a role to play in insulin resistance, obesity, non-alcohol fatty liver disease and type 2 diabetes and that there is a difference in the gut bacteria composition in normal and overweight people.
Be very wary of labels which say ‘no added sugar’, ‘low sugar’, ‘light/lite’ or ‘diet’ – usually these mean that an artificial sweetener has been added instead of sugar.
We now know that refined sugar is not good for our health and you want to keep it to a minimum. But sugar may be broken down into a number of sugars in the ingredient list.
This is a manufacturer’s trick to avoid grouping them together and having to list sugar as the first (and therefore greatest) ingredient. Sugar can be broken down into: sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, maltodextrin, lactose, maltose and corn syrup. In one breakfast cereal there may be five different sugars listed in the ingredients.
10.Small is beautiful
Generally, the longer the ingredients list, the more suspicious you should be about the origin of the product. Manufacturers argue that additives, preservatives and flavourings, and so on, are used in such small quantities that they will not have any adverse effect.
However, when you take into account all the small amounts in all the different products we eat and drink every day, these small amounts soon add up. I believe we’re unwittingly creating a chemical cocktail inside ourselves – and nobody knows exactly how these chemicals will react together.
11.Everything in moderation
It is quite impossible to make sure every morsel you eat is chemical free, especially if your lifestyle means you have to take snacks or meals away from home, as most of us do. Just make sure that what you eat at home is as natural and healthy as possible.
‘Everything in moderation’ is the best rule to follow. Choose natural mineral water for your drinks most of the time. If your busy life means that sometimes you have to buy convenience or packaged food, then find the best brand you can and go for the shortest, least chemical-looking ingredients list possible.