Contrary to what you might think, similar looking products don’t all contain similar levels of fat, salt, sugar and calories. In fact, they can vary quite widely, especially when it comes to sugar, which is why it pays to look at food labels and compare different brands, varieties and flavours.
It’s not just cakes, biscuits and fizzy drinks that contribute sugar in our diets, but nutritious foods too like breakfast cereal. These provide us with vitamins, minerals and fibre, but they can contain a lot of sugar, which is why it’s important to choose lower sugar options. Take for example two different brands of ‘cluster’ breakfast cereal. One has 26g of sugar per 100g and the other 15.1g - a 42% difference! A serving of the lower sugar cereal contains half the amount of sugar per serve (6g per 40g - equivalent to 1.5 tsps) compared to a recommended serving of the other (12g sugar per 45g – equivalent to 3 tsps).
At a time when we all need to cut back on sugar, looking at labels has never been more important. The problem is that it can be difficult to know if a product is healthy or not from the nutrition information provided on pack. Although healthier options are available, they’re not always easy to spot. Nutrition labels are inconsistent and can be confusing - some don’t have traffic light colour coding, others use percentages, while some only have nutrition information in a table on the back of pack, often difficult to read and interpret. A new survey carried out by Action on Sugar has found that many of the leading cereal manufacturers, including Kellogg’s and Nestle, do not use government recommended traffic light colour-coded front of pack nutrition information on their products, while other brands have no front of pack nutrition labelling at all. This makes it nigh-on impossible to compare products and know whether a product is high, medium or low in sugar, fat and salt. If colour-coded information was displayed and consistently used, shoppers might be surprised by what they see, with some cereals containing three teaspoons of sugar per serving which equates to a red (‘high’) label for sugar. Providing people with this information enables them to make more informed decisions and switch to a lower sugar option, which, in the case of cereals, could save them 45 teaspoons of sugar per month!
To help you decipher the numbers and find out exactly what is in your food, we have developed FoodSwitch UK, a free smartphone app that helps you find and switch to healthier alternatives of your favourite foods and drinks. The app scans the barcode of packaged foods and drinks and provides immediate colour-coded nutrition information, even if there is none on the pack itself, so that you can see at a glance whether a serving is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in total fat, saturates, sugars and salt. The app also searches its database to find healthier choices that you can switch to from the same product category, making it easier to switch to a healthier option.
For people looking to specifically cut down on their sugar intake, there is a SugarSwitch filter which lists healthier choices that are lower in sugar per 100g than the item scanned. Alternatively, users can search for healthier products that are lower in saturated fat, salt or calories using the FatSwitch, SaltSwitch or CalorieSwitch filters, or search for products that are generally healthier overall using the classic FoodSwitch filter. Products can be saved to lists, ready to swap next time you shop, and shared with friends and family.
In the absence of standardised, clear front-of-pack nutrition labelling, practical tools like this take the guesswork out of food shopping, helping consumers to find the best choices and make baskets that bit healthier. It also provides an incentive to encourage food manufacturers to reformulate their products and extend the range of healthier options to choose from.