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How to read labels?

I found inspiration for this article during a Sunday meeting with my Grandma. While visiting me, she summarised her latest visits to the doctors, in her usual fashion. Luckily, the story was short.

In my family, there is a common belief, that sinus blockage is a genetical illness- a destiny that cannot be escaped. So, Grandma visited a laryngologist, who for her blocked sinuses recommended a fantastic product from the chemist (but without a prescription).

The packaging included a little bottle with a nozzle and seven sachets with a powder that she dissolved in water, in the bottle mentioned above, and injected into the nostrils. Grandma was impressed, as the product cost only 30pln (~10aud) and lasted all week. Her fears of choking on the liquid were fast disbanded by the intelligent design of the bottle; it was simply enough to close one nostril and the fluid came out of the other. Basically, this was supposed to be a cheap solution, easy to use, healthy (from the chemist), and effective (recommended by the doc).

As I must also suffer from congested sinuses, surely I would benefit from the same contraption?

I respectfully declined, explaining that for many years, in the rare case of blocked nose, I clear it simply by injecting a solution of sea salt, which I commonly use in my kitchen. All that I need for this procedure is a bulb syringe, bought from the chemist for 5pln (~2aud) and this simple technique completely suffices.

Grandma did not give up so easily and after I dropped her home, showed me her device, just in case I change my mind, or my home methods fail.

Indeed, the bottle presented nicely, packaging seemed trustworthy and so I looked at the ingredients of the futuristic sachets with the miraculous cure, which turned out to be nothing other than the plain old sodium chloride. Well, I was never a champion in the chemistry class, but my basic knowledge allowed me to realise that Grandma paid 30pln for seven packets with salt. It was not even sea salt (which besides NaCl also contains more than 80 micro elements necessary for maintaining correct body function), but just ordinary, bare table salt.

I cannot blame my Grandma for falling for this product… For her generation it is evident that an authority such as a doctor can be trusted unconditionally. She is not used to reading labels either; back in her day, product was clearly represented by its name.

And these days, it is incredibly easy to fall victim to the selling gimmicks, even if you are careful. Producers try to trick us on every turn.

There is a whole gamma of products out there, which seem healthy and yet have nothing to do with our well-being. For example, you’ve got your good old yogurt with oats and “good bacteria” that constitutes of 20% of sugar, artificial additives and flavour enhancers, and the multivitamin juice made from concentrate and glucose syrup etc. etc.

Here are few tips on how to be a vigilant and conscious consumer:

1

The order of ingredients: elements are mentioned in the order of quantity. Producers don’t have an obligation to include percentages, so you can only guess. If the first ingredient is water and the second tomatoes (35%), you can already assume that the proportion of water will be greater than 35%. These facts are especially useful when looking at milky desserts, sweets, pate or other smallgoods; all of which typically have long ingredient list. Of course, the shorter such list, the less processed the product, and therefore much healthier for you.

2

Nutrients: In a particular table at the back of the packaging, manufacturers nominate the weight and percentage of daily allowance for each macronutrient in the product.

Amongst the specified entries you can usually find carbohydrates, protein, fats, sometimes sodium or certain minerals and vitamins. It’s crucial to check the units defined: sometimes the values refer to “per 100g” while the product actually weighs more. Often the values listed apply to “per portion” and it’s worthwhile to estimate the reality of such guidelines- for example, would you consider two squares of chocolate a portion?

Also, be aware of saturated fat, as in the food industry such fats being present often equal the use of trans fats- chemically modified, hardened plant-based oils, which aren’t properly absorbed by human body.

3

“Best before” and “use by date”: these two aren’t interchangeable.

Best before merely suggests the latest optimal use by date, after which the product will still be edible but may lose some of its taste valours, change consistency or colour.

Use By Date communicates the last safe date of consumption after which the product is most likely to go off.

These are some basic tips, which should quickly become your habit and safeguard you against marketing traps. The deeper you go, the better your adventure is likely to become. I highly recommend you familiarise yourself with the names of food additives and what hides behind their peculiar names. You can even find phone apps for it, such as Chemical Maze, but these are all another level of health literacy 😉