Looking behind food labels: an expert view on eating right

A child feeds yoghurt to a cuddly soft toy

Are kids’ yoghurts healthy? What about processed fruit snacks? And is all bread equally good for you? We sat down with expert nutritionist Anne Betty to answer these questions and more

Children’s yoghurts

Let’s start with children’s yoghurts – a popular pudding or after-school snack. A lot of them promote health nutrition claims such as high in vitamin D and calcium. Are these claims reliable? Do we need to be concerned about the sugar content?

Products have to contain a significant amount of a vitamin or mineral to make a claim on the pack or in any marketing materials. The significant amount has to be at least 15% of the daily reference intake, and the quantity of the vitamin or mineral claimed also has to be declared in the back of pack nutrition table. Some of the products targeted at children have added calcium and vitamin D to make sure there’s a significant amount available – and these will be listed in the ingredients too.

It’s always a good idea to check the sugar content of yoghurts as those sweetened with added sugars fall into one of the food categories considered to be top contributors to the public’s sugar and calorie intakes. Ideally choose yoghurts that are less than 3g fat per 100g and no more than 10.8g total sugar per 100g as they are a good choice according to Change4Life.

Fruit snacks for children

Children’s fruit snacks – such as peelers, strings, flakes, bites, yoghurt-coated, pouches – are they a healthy option for kids and do they really count as 1 of a child’s 5 A DAY?

These snacks are made of concentrated fruit purees and juices, and are really convenient to give to children anywhere. Because they’re made from real fruit and don’t contain any added sugars, the sugars found in the snacks are the ones that occur naturally.

The equivalent amount of fresh fruit needed to make the snacks can equate to 1 of your 5 A DAY. However, it could be really easy to eat more than one of these snacks at a time as they often weigh as little as 15–20g each. It would be much more filling to eat the equivalent weight (at least 80g) of fresh fruit needed to make them.

In addition, due to the concentrated fruit, these snacks are high in sugar and would receive a red traffic light on the front of the pack. Some contain the equivalent of 3 or 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving. The sugars can become trapped around teeth, making them more susceptible to decay, so these snacks shouldn’t be given to children between meals. Some schools even ban them from lunchboxes as they’re considered confectionery.

What about bread?

Sliced loaf made up of white and wholemeal bread slicesOn a recent trip to the supermarket I counted so many varieties of bread – white, seeded, soft, farmhouse, crusty, granary, tiger, malted, grain, barley. Does it matter what bread we buy? Are they all equally healthy?

Bread is a starchy food and has an important role in a healthy balanced diet. It’s a significant contributor of carbohydrate in our diets therefore a good source of energy, and also provides fibre, calcium and B vitamins.

Wholemeal, granary, brown and seeded varieties provide more fibre which helps keep your bowels healthy. As a population we need to consume more fibre so it’s good to choose whole grain, wholemeal or brown varieties whenever you can.

Top tips in the shops

If you’re a busy parent in the supermarket, you probably won’t have time to read all the food labels or even know what the percentages mean. Can you give us 1 or 2 tips on what to look for – or what to ignore – to help us shop healthily?

Most supermarket brands and some larger brands now use the coloured traffic light style nutrition information on front of pack. This is an excellent tool to help you take more control of your shopping habits. At a glance you can see if a food contains more reds or greens, and it’s easy to compare with similar products too.

The colours show if a food is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, sugars or salt. If a food is mainly red traffic lights, you should aim to cut down or eat it less often in smaller amounts. Mainly ambers means you’re fine to consume this food most of the time. The more greens a food has, the healthier a choice it is.

  1. If you shop with younger children, get them to help look for the traffic lights too, and give them the challenge of picking the ones with the most ambers and greens.
  2. Another tip is to look at the ingredients list. The ingredients are listed in order of the quantity used, with the greatest first. If you see a product that has sugar or butter listed in the first few ingredients, you’ll know it’s likely to be a relatively high sugar or fat product.
  3. Meal planning a week in advance is also a really useful tip – this will help you only buy what you really need, helping you stay on track with your healthy eating goals rather than relying on impulse purchases. It can help save you money too especially if you plan meals using cheaper seasonal ingredients.

> Order a free copy of our guide Making sense of food and drink labelling

Anne Betty, nutritionistAnne Betty is a Registered Nutritionist and founder of AB Food Nutrition. Follow her on Twitter @abfoodnutrition