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Confused about food labels? You're not alone.

With Dr Alex Chung, Ashika & Isaac

Season 4 - Episode 1

16 Nov 2022
Podcast 25:21
Dr Alex Chung smiling while holding an apple

Listen before your next trip to the supermarket

It’s 6pm. Your workday was exhausting. Traffic was horrible.

And now you’re squeezing between other customers in the supermarket aisle, while you try to decipher exactly what’s in the food you’re about to buy. Unless you're a marketing and nutrition expert, you might have a tough time.

How do you know which product is healthier? What should you be looking out for in the ingredients list? And why does sugar have so many different names?

Dr Alexandra Chung, a qualified dietician and food marketing researcher at Monash University, breaks down the techniques marketers use to get you to buy their products, and shares tactics to help you get what you actually need from your next trip to the grocery store.

  • Transcript

    Ashika 00:08

    Hi, I'm Ashika. I'm here at the supermarket in Yarraville, with my son.


    Isaac 00:14

    Hi, I'm Isaac, and I’m 9.


    Sandro Demaio  00:25

    Ashika and Isaac are about to do their weekly grocery shopping, which sounds like a simple enough job. But we all know that's not always the case. Isaac, can I ask you a question? Do you like doing the grocery shopping?


    Isaac 00:40

    Can I be honest?


    Ashika 00:41

    You can be honest.




    It's fun, isn't it? When we come together and I give you tasks to do? I say Noah, go and get the chips, Isaac, come with me and get the fruits and vegetables. 


    Oh, yeah. 


    Isn't that good? 


    Yeah, it's fun.


    Sandro Demaio  01:02

    Eating well starts with buying well. And unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Unless you've got a marketing degree, you're at a disadvantage. I'm Dr. Sandro Demaio. And this is In Good Health. I'm about to talk to Dr. Alex Chung about how misleading food labels convince many people into thinking the food they're buying is healthy, when in reality, it's not. The processed food industry bombards us with marketing for unhealthy foods, often even targeting our kids directly. And if that sounds a little extreme, well, let's see it in action. Ashika and Isaac are deciding between two breakfast cereal brands, and they're using every tactic they can think of to find a healthy cereal.


    Ashika 01:47

    We're in the muesli aisle at the moment, looking at all the different varieties of muesli that are available. Okay, let's have a look at the one you've chosen, Isaac.


    Isaac 02:00

    I'll pick this one. It's just above eye height. I can see a lot of flakes and berries and a fruit that I don't quite know what it is.


    Ashika 02:16

    I think that might be a fig, cut up. 


    Isaac 02:19


    Ashika 02:21 
    Isaac’s one has 0.5 less of a star, so has 4 health stars. It says that it is 25% of your daily vitamin C and vitamin E needs. It's also got berries in it. It looks really healthy on the picture. There's some fresh berries and lovely colours that make it look like it's really appealing.


    Isaac 02:53

    So, 590 kilojoules per serving. That is 0.7 grams and sugars, 7.2 grams. Sodium is 81 milligrams,


    Sandro Demaio  03:16

    You can see why they're confused. Now, let's hear about Ashika’s cereal.


    Ashika 03:21

    So I've picked up a box just below eye level. It's a nice pink box, it says it's got less than 7 grams, sugar, and 5 grain and seeds with it, and apple and blueberry. It's got a 4.5 Health Star Rating. From the picture on the box,it looks like it's got fresh berries and some clusters of oats and looks very healthy from the picture. I do look at the Health Star Rating. I try and see which ones have the highest amount of stars when I'm choosing between different brands. So when I'm looking at the nutritional information, I do try and see what the energy amounts are by, per serving as well as per 100 grams. For me, the it's actually more the fat and the sugar content that's more important. So this particular one has out of a serving size of 45 grams, nearly 7grams of fat content. Once again, it's really hard to know what the threshold is of whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. This particular nutritional information label doesn't actually have percentages around how much of the recommend daily intake is included as part of a serving. It just has the raw numbers, I suppose having that information would be useful, I just don't know it.


    Sandro Demaio  05:12

    This was a key difference between the cereals Isaac’s cereal had a lot more detailed information.


    Ashika 05:19

    That's kind of a little bit helpful for me because I can think, oh, well actually, I would have a lot of other things that I could eat in my day. The other thing that this has is a list of the different vitamins and minerals that are included. And this one says 50% of the recommended daily intake of B1. So I'd be like, well, by just eating 1 serving of this particular cereal, I could get half of what I need every day, which is kind of appealing to me.


    Sandro Demaio  06:00

    Dr. Alexandra Chung is a qualified dietitian and food marketing researcher at Monash University, as well as a research fellow here at VicHealth. She's here to help untangle some of the information that has Ashika and Isaac, and most families across Australia, in a bind at the supermarket. So Alex, Ashika and Isaac are comparing 2 seemingly healthy breakfast cereal options, and Ashika’s noted that her cereal has a four and a half star rating. How legitimate is the rating system?


    Alex Chung  06:29

    The Health Star Rating is definitely a legitimate tool for making decisions around what foods to choose. The Health Star Rating is a relatively new initiative in Australia, it's a food labelling technique that allows us to compare products within the same category. So if you're looking at breakfast cereal, for example, you can look at the number of Health Stars across the whole breakfast cereal range. And use that to help you choose the most healthy choice in in the range. Health Stars can be awarded from half a star up to 5 stars. So the product that Ashika has chosen here, having 4-and-a-half stars is a pretty healthy choice when we're thinking about breakfast cereals.


    Sandro Demaio  07:05

    So it's about comparing things to other products in the same category though. So if you had a bunch of really unhealthy products, one could just be the best have a really bad bunch and get a good rating.


    Alex Chung  07:17

    That's exactly right. So we see in some food products, there are not many healthy choices at all. So say something like sweet biscuits, there might not be many terribly healthy choices, but you could use the Health Star Rating to compare the health of one sweet biscuit to another. And if you're trying to choose something in that category, you'd be looking for the one with more stars,


    Sandro Demaio  07:35

    Oh no though those chocolate biscuits I bought the other day that were like drenched in caramel. And they had, you know, all these stars, I thought I thought that were healthy. I was gonna eat the whole packet.


    Alex Chung  07:44

    Those sorts of foods are really something that we encourage people to have only sometimes and in small amounts.


    Sandro Demaio  07:49

    Ashika also pointed out that the nutrition label on her choice doesn't include the recommended daily intake information. Recommended daily intake information. My gosh, what a mouthful. Can you explain what that is and if it's important for people to pay attention to?


    Alex Chung  08:05

    The recommended daily intake information is another guide that we can use to help make choices around the foods that we're choosing. So it can tell us, for an adult, and that's quite an important distinction, the recommended daily intake guide can tell us for an adult that this particular food contains a certain percentage of your daily recommended amount for fat or fibre or sugar or sodium or certain vitamins or minerals too. So it can be a helpful guide to think about how much of this particular food is contributing to your overall intake of certain macro or micro nutrients. But it's not on every product, so we can't use it to make all of our food-related decisions. And the other important thing to remember is the recommended daily intake guide that we see on food packets is the recommended daily intake for an adult.


    Sandro Demaio  08:52

    So this is actually something that was on Ashika’s mind.


    Ashika 08:55

    I’d be interested to know, I'm not quite sure, how this translates to children. And what that recommended daily intake percentage means for kids. I'd kind of assume from this label that the higher percentage is a better thing. But I'm actually not quite sure. 


    Alex Chung  09:14

    But we know for children that they don't actually have the same recommended daily allowance as adults, children are much smaller. So they need often less of those nutrients for their bodies. And it's much more difficult to provide a recommended daily allowance for children that's a set figure, because as children grow their nutritional needs are changing quite rapidly.


    Sandro Demaio  09:33

    Going back to Ashika’s option we see that this brand speaking both it's high in fibre and low in sugar, and it's got something called super seeds. Now, it sounds very intriguing, sort of like these, you know, that they wear capes at night and go round fighting bad seeds or something, but I mean, can you tell me what what's the difference between nutrition information and marketing,? Because, to me, super seeds, I have to say, I'm pretty sure I never read that in my medical textbook.


    Alex Chung  10:04

    You've picked up on something that's really apparent to me on this packet of cereal that Ashika has chosen. There are a lot of messages, there is a lot of information on the front of this packet.


    Sandro Demaio 10:14
    Crisp and crunchy.


    Alex Chung  10:15
    Crisp and crunchy, vegan friendly, excellent source of fibre.


    Sandro Demaio 10:19
    Vegan friendly?


    Alex Chung  10:20
    Very high in wholegrain. There are a lot of messages there. And it can be really difficult to disentangle what is information and what is marketing. But you've started to pick up on some of it. There are some features on this packet that actually have to be regulated. So if a product is talking about containing certain nutrients, then it must actually comply with regulations around that. So where the product says here, excellent source of fibre, it actually must contain some fibre to be able to make that claim. 


    Sandro Demaio  10:50

    Yeah, I mean, seems like a pretty low bar, doesn't it?


    Alex Chung  10:53

    Yeah, I would say that a lot of this marketing certainly sits in an unregulated space. So a lot of the features on this packet actually, are not regulated. And it's up to marketers then to put whatever they would like on the packet. So I can see here it says real food. Well, you'd certainly hope so if you're buying a box of cereal to take home for your family. It talks about being high in whole grains, which is telling us a bit about the ingredients. But that's sitting next to a lovely pink tick there, which suggests that it's quite a healthy sort of feature of the packet. It talks about being vegan friendly, which is certainly a marketing claim to appeal to a certain audience who are following a vegan diet, or interested in a vegan diet. We can talk about grains and seeds as being healthy for our diet. But there's no such thing officially as super seeds. So that's definitely a marketing feature trying to draw us in and encourage us to buy this cereal over something else.


    Sandro Demaio  11:48

    So Ashika’s son Isaac chose a cheaper brand, but one that still had a lot of, I would say healthy branding. We see fresh fruits, we see lots of nice colours on the packaging. No real surprise. Isaac's choice also lists the vitamins included.


    Isaac Boivin  12:06

    B6, C, E, zinc, calcium iron.


    Sandro Demaio  12:13

    Is this relevant?


    Alex Chung  12:13

    It's certainly relevant, in a sense, you can see that the nutrition information panel on each of the two cereal boxes is a little bit different. So on the choice that Ashika picked up, it contains the nutrition information panel lists some of the major nutrients that would be in that energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates and sugar, fibre and sodium. But the packet that Isaac chose also lists a number of vitamins and minerals.


    Sandro Demaio  12:39

    Yeah, I mean, this is what Ashika was talking about earlier. Remember the bit with the information overload. 


    Ashika 12:44

    So when I'm looking at the nutritional information, I do try and see what the energy amounts are by per serving, as well as per 100 grams. So this particular one has, out of a serving size of 45 grams, nearly seven grams of fat content, the saturated fat content is less than one gramme. So I think that's a good thing? I'm not entirely sure the difference between saturated and unsaturated. But I think it might be a good thing.


    Sandro Demaio  13:23

    I was overwhelmed. I was honestly overwhelmed when I looked at this huge amount of information that they've put on the side of the packet. 


    Alex Chung  13:30

    You’re right to be overwhelmed, Sandro. There's a lot of information on there. And I think it's very difficult for consumers to decide what piece of information to use. The other thing that's really interesting, I think, is that although this particular box of cereal that Isaac has chosen lists all of these vitamins and minerals, the box of cereal that Ashika has chosen would actually contain these vitamins and minerals inside the cereal. Manufacturers just haven't listed that on the packet. So there are some interesting decisions that get made when food manufacturers choose what to put on their packet. And as I think we get a sense from Ashika and Isaac, there is a sense that having that list of vitamins and minerals may have influenced their final decision on what to choose for their family. 


    Sandro Demaio  14:13

    Wait. So by putting more information on the packet, the amount of information is even a ploy of marketing potentially.


    Alex Chung  14:20



    Sandro Demaio 14:21

    Holy moly. 


    Alex Chung  14:22

    Yeah, they're really out to bamboozle us.


    Sandro Demaio  14:30

    So whatare some of the main traps that that we all fall for when it comes to marketing? I mean, for me, it's kind of blowing my mind today, just how much marketing – these are like billboards. These are not breakfast cereals. It's kind of billboards with some breakfast cereal inside. What are the main traps that we all fall for when it comes to marketing?


    Alex Chung  14:49

    These are mini billboards, really, aren't they with cereal inside? I think for parents, they want to feed their children well. They want to have healthy children. So parents are often taken in by the marketing messages that call out to health. There are marketing messages on each of these packets and much of the food in the supermarket that promises to be healthy. And I think that that's an easy one for parents to go for. And understandably so. When we look at food marketing that's directed to children, it's a different kind of marketing that we see on packets. When we look at packets that are really reaching out to children, there are things like cartoon characters, licensed characters that children recognise from their favourite TV show or performer. There are bright colours and logos on there. There are often pictures of children on packets of foods that are designed to be sold for children. So we see that children are also an important target of the marketing that often appears on these food packages.


    Sandro Demaio  15:45

    I really hope the answer to this question is yes, but I have a feeling it's no. I mean, you've got these foods that are ultimately being pushed on young people, please tell me at least they're the healthier products.


    Alex Chung  15:57

    Sadly, Sandro, it's not always the case. A lot of the food products that are heavily marketed to children are, in fact, not healthy products. And I think that's why, yeah, sorry, I'm sorry to break the bad news to you. There's a whole category of food out there now that's really being sold as children's foods. And I put that in inverted commas because, from a nutrition point of view, they're not really the foods that we would recommend children eat on a regular basis. When we look at what children are eating in Australia today, we know that for young children, around 40% of their diet is actually made up of these processed packaged foods, foods that we wouldn't consider to be ideal for good health. So marketing absolutely works. And it's drawing children and their parents in to choose these processed and packaged foods that we really don't recommend for good health.


    Sandro Demaio  16:45

    Yeah, and I just want to make it really clear that I'm not for a second blaming or shaming parents who are listening or kids in any way. That's not what I'm saying. And I feel really strongly about this, because I think it's too easy to say, you know, we'll just don't take kids down that aisle, and tell kids no, But it's not the reality. And it's not what the evidence shows. And it's not why they spend millions of dollars advertising these products to kids. And I think also, it's important to say that not every country allows this, there are countries in the world that have said, enough is enough. Does it frustrate you that we are so far behind in Australia?


    Alex Chung  17:20

    it frustrates me enormously that so much of this marketing is unregulated. And the food environment that we all live in is so heavily curated by the food and beverage industry, the processed food industry, in particular, with heavily marketed products. So it's very difficult for parents to navigate that marketing, when we know businesses have huge budgets to put to food marketing, then children are making requests to their parents to pick up this, that or the other and put it in the shopping trolley. We really need business and government to do better. And that takes me to the other point that you raised there, Sandro. In some countries, we do see regulation starting to step in to protect parents and protect children from some of this marketing. In Australia, we've got some really important documents that are starting to show some leadership around this issue. So the national obesity strategy that was released earlier this year, does make recommendations for action in areas including protecting children from unhealthy food marketing, and improving nutrition labelling. So that Health Star Rating that we were talking about earlier, is included on some packets. But at the moment, not all packets, it's not mandatory for businesses to put the Health Star Rating on their food products. But a recommendation that's come through is that that Health Star Rating should be mandatory, so people can choose evenly across all foods in the food supply.


    Sandro Demaio  18:41

    So how our food labels currently regulated by the government?


    Alex Chung  18:45

    There are a few rules about what can appear on our packets. So the nutrition information panel that we’ve talked about a little bit today has to appear on food packets, so that consumers can see how much energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates are in a particular food product. 


    Sandro Demaio  19:01

    That's the like Excel spreadsheets type thing on the side of the label.


    Alex Chung  19:05

    Excel spreadsheet on the side of the packet has to be there. So all packaged foods have to have that. And all packaged foods also have to have an ingredients list to tell us what is actually inside the food that's in that packet. And an important thing to think about when you're looking through the ingredients list is to think that the foods, or the items, that are listed in that ingredients list are there in order of what is most in the food, right down to least . So if you're looking at a packet of cereal, say, and maybe we can look at one of these, we could look at Ashika’s choice here. The first ingredient on the ingredients list there is wholegrains. So that's quite promising, 52% wholegrains in that cereal product. And then it lists them, oats, rye, barley, wheat flakes and buckwheat. This second ingredient in this box of cereal is golden syrup. Now another word for golden syrup is sugar. So when you start to read through the ingredients list, you can start to identify all of the different things that have gone into making up that food.


    Sandro Demaio  20:08

    But hang on a second, it says then later in the ingredients list, raw sugar. So it's sugar twice.


    Alex Chung  20:16

    It's sugar twice. And we see that a lot in products, often different types of sugars will be added. They might have different properties and have different features in terms of the food manufacturing process. But in terms of entering our body, it's all sugar. We might be just looking for sugar, but sometimes they’ll call it cane sugar or raw sugar, because that sounds a little bit more healthy. There's also things that we see in there, like sucrose glucose, dextrose, fructose.


    Sandro Demaio  20:44

    So we've been pretty tough on our current food labelling system. Is there anything we're actually getting right?


    Alex Chung  20:49

    Yeah, certainly, there are things that we are doing right, I think the fact that products must have that ingredients list on the side of the packet is a really good start for consumers to be fully aware of what's inside a product. Plus, when we think about that ingredients list and the sneaky words that can be used in there to hide things like sugar, we do know that there’s room for improvement. The nutrition information panel has to be on the packet. And we see that that's an important piece of information. But also, as we've discussed, that can be quite difficult to decipher for people. And that's where the Health Star Rating comes in. But we know that the Health Star Rating’s not mandatory, so when it doesn't have to be on the front of every packet, we are seeing, as you said, it's used as a bit of a marketing tool to promote more healthy products, and less healthy products are currently leaving that off. So calling for a mandatory food labelling scheme is really important, an important next step for us here in Australia. The next really important thing that we need to be calling out for is a reduction of food marketing that's targeted towards children, and their parents. So we need to be restricting the volume of food marketing that is trying to influence children's diets, by seeking to influence children and their parents’ food making decisions.


    Sandro Demaio  22:00

    What about for us as consumers? Like what can we do, acknowledging how difficult it is and not wanting to kind of assign blame or make people feel bad, you know, for whatever ends up in their in their baskets. What can we be doing as consumers, as families, as individuals, to find that healthier cereal?


    Alex Chung  22:17

    If you're finding that your kids are being unfairly targeted by food marketing, make some noise about it. Join something like Parents’ Voice and really speak up. If you're believing that it's unfairly targeting your kids, or if it's making your life difficult. I think with a bit of community groundswell, we can start to make a bit more noise about this issue. It's really unfair that our children are being targeted by food and beverage industries, in order to make a profit.


    Sandro Demaio  22:42

    So Alex, if I'm short on time at the supermarket, what information should I look for?


    Alex Chung  22:47

    If you're really short on time, and you want to make a quick decision, have a look at the Health Star Rating. Choose something with more stars compared to fewer, and start with that. If you've got a bit more time, flip the packet over and look past the marketing that's on the front of the pack, have a look on the side or the back of the packet and read through that ingredients list. Have a look and see how much sugar is actually in that list of ingredients. You might also have a look at the nutrition information panel and have a look at that per 100 gram column if you're tossing up between a couple of different types of cereal. And choose the cereal with less sugar, more fibre, and see if you can start to really pick out the healthiest product for you.


    Sandro Demaio  23:26

    Awesome. Do we need to improve the health or food literacy of Australians? Like is that something we also need to look at alongside, you know, better protections from government and maybe, you know, thinking about a few things at the checkout ourselves?


    Alex Chung  23:41

    The supermarket is a really overwhelming place to spend some time and it can be very difficult to make food-related decisions in the supermarket in the heat of the moment. I think as well as calling for change to improve the health of the food environment in things like food marketing, food promotion, we can also arm consumers with knowledge and skills to enable them to make the best possible choices. But by and large, we're really calling on business and government to do better, so that the environment where we spend our time and where we're making our food-related decisions, is more healthy and can really push us towards healthier choices. Rather than trying to convince us to buy food that's really not good for our health.


    Sandro Demaio  24:19

    Do better. I want a t-shirt with do better: Dr Alex Chung. Love it, do better.


    Alex Chung  24:27

    Do better.


    Ashika 24:28

    Do you agree? What do you think? 


    Isaac 24:31

    Yeah, cool. Sounds good.


    Sandro Demaio  24:33

    That's Dr. Alex Chang, helping us break down exactly what's going on when families like Ashika and Isaac hit the grocery store. But being surrounded by unhealthy food products and marketing undermines people's efforts to eat healthy. But I'm walking away from this chat with a better understanding of the big companies’ sneaky tactics, and some tools I'll use next time I'm in the cereal aisle. Across this new season of In Good Health, we're also going to other topics like sleep, physical activity and social connection. So if you want to learn more about the factors influencing your health, and help those around you, make sure you're following us in your favourite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. In Good Health is a podcast by VicHealth, hosted by me Dr. Sandro Demaio and produced by Deadset Studios.

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