Navigating packaging marketing at the supermarket

Supermarkets have become increasingly confusing and knowing what we should be feeding our families, while keeping to a budget, even more so.

Some familiar marketing on packaging includes "reduced fat", "5-health-star rating", "no added ... ", "fat free", "gluten free" and "high in ... ".

Take tomato sauce, for example, with 25% less added salt on the label. We would assume that this is a good choice, because our kids need to eat less sugar and sodium. But often when you look closely, these claims are not what they seem; for example, the regular sauce from the same brand they were comparing to was much higher in salt than many other brands, so the reduced salt option was not necessarily healthier than others.

Next, the health star rating. It is up to the manufacturers whether they want to include a rating on their products. This is why you won’t find many products with a half or 1-star rating — they’ve opted out of the system.

Plain cow’s milk has a 4-star rating, but Up&Go has 4.5 stars, despite having added sugars and additives. Low-fat strawberry milk even gets 4.5 stars. Some lollies have higher star ratings than natural Greek yoghurt, due to yoghurt containing some saturated fat.

Butter is another example of a natural food that comes straight from a cow. But because it’s high in saturated fat, it has a lower score than a highly processed margarine.

Lollies claim to be 99% fat-free. But 99% fat-free doesn’t make them healthy — excess sugar spikes our insulin and turns to fat. It also depletes nutrients and reduces immune function.

Unflavoured choices are usually best, i.e. plain rice cakes, seaweed snacks, rice crackers and chips, to avoid MSG and other additives. MSG is a flavour enhancer and has been linked to skin conditions, headaches and behavioural disorders. It is also highly addictive — salt and vinegar flavoured pea chips contain not one, but three different flavour enhancers (numbers 621, 627 and 631), making it easier to understand why it is difficult to stop at one.

How do we navigate feeding a family when we have so many options available? A good plan is to firstly limit food in packaging, if possible; and secondly, ignore any claims on the front of the packaging.

The most useful information is on the ingredients list. It’s usually the smallest, because manufacturers prefer you to look at the claims rather than the ingredients.

The most prominent ingredient is always listed first — if the first ingredient is sugar, that product is mostly sugar.

A good rule of thumb is the shorter the ingredients list, the better. Ideally, pick products with five ingredients or less. For most products, the fewer the ingredients, the less processed it is — i.e. rice, quinoa, red lentils.

You may need to make changes slowly. Unflavoured rice crackers could be accompanied by some hummus or a slice of cheese with chutney to add flavour and nutrition. You can also add fresh or frozen fruit to plain Greek yoghurt for

a less processed option. Homemade popcorn is really cheap and you can add your own mineral salt and butter, if you choose.

Getting kids involved in the preparation of food is another useful tool. If they can help to grow the likes of peas and cherry tomatoes, and then pick them and put them in their lunch box, they’ll be more interested in trying them.

You could also pick out a new recipe to try, such as yummy chocolate bliss balls (recipe included) and then shop for the ingredients and make them together, to make eating well enjoyable and nourishing.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Healthy chocolate bliss balls

Makes 10 balls

1 cup whole oats

½ cup pitted dates

½ cup cashew butter (any nut/seed butter works)

¼ cup maple syrup

½ tsp vanilla extract

¼ tsp salt

1 ½ Tbsp chocolate drops


Firstly, add oats to a food processor and grind until they resemble flour.

Add the oat flour, dates, cashew butter, maple syrup, vanilla and salt to the food processor and process until the mixture comes together and is smooth.

Remove the mixture and pour into a bowl. Form into small balls with your hands and press a chocolate chip into each ball. Enjoy!