The Importance of Knowing What is on Food Labels
Food is any material eaten to supply nutrition to an organism. In the simplest sense, food is food that sustains an organism’s life. More specifically, food is generally of animal, plant or fungi origin, and contains various nutrients, including vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, or minerals. Since life is nourished by food, the first law of nutrition states that if you want to live you have to eat food.
Many people believe they are eating a balanced diet when in fact they are not. In reality, most diets are deficient in nutrients and most people consume far too much fat and salt than is required. A balanced diet would include a well-balanced combination of food groups: carbohydrates, protein, fruit and vegetables. However, when people make food choices that exclude carbohydrates and/or higher fibre they do not receive the recommended daily allowance of the essential nutrients. It is for this reason that scientists continually study the effect of diet on health and disease, particularly in patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and bowel disease.
The problem occurs because fats and oils are easier to digest and absorb than most other nutrients and so rapidly add up to weight gain. Fats, oils and refined sugars are metabolised faster than most other nutrients and so add up to obesity. It is also true that refined sugars are easier for the body to digest than more natural sources, but this benefit is offset by the fact that processed sugars and high fructose corn syrup are far higher in calories and therefore contribute to obesity. All food is made up of some combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fat. The difference lies in the quality and quantity of the four food groups:
Carbohydrates are found in many forms, including whole food products like breads, cereals, rice, potatoes and beans. When refined or manufactured foods are added to these foods, there is no longer the fiber, which is the main component of fibres. Fibre is an important nutrient, and is vital to a healthy and fulfilling diet. Some types of carbohydrates can actually increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Insoluble fibre has a greater impact on our health than soluble fibre, because it helps keep bowel movements regular and promotes regular and healthy digestion.
A food label can give you important clues about the nutritional value of food, and this is even more true when you are buying pre-packaged foods. Labels for ready-made foods often don’t indicate fibre and don’t have this important label. So when buying ready-made foods, check the nutrition information panel and find out what percentage of the product is made up of fibre. It may not be very obvious, but packaging is also a strong indicator of the nutritional value of the food. For example, a tin of drained pasta has a far higher mineral and energy content than a tin of the same size which has no nutritional or fibre content.
The above discussion about food label information is just the beginning in our next part, ‘Sources of Nutrients’. We will look at some further examples and identify other key areas that are important for nutrition, and for our overall health. It is important to remember that each food provides different sources of a range of nutrients, and there are many more dietary and environmental factors than can be considered here. This research should stimulate further debate about the relationship between nutrition and environment, and how these factors are interdependent, but for now, this overview should be helpful.