[As published in July/August BayBuzz magazine.]

I am, and have been for years, a self-appointed food label assessor. 

I am always sceptical of multinational manufacturers, distrusting of long lists of ingredients and wary of ingredients that don’t sound like food. 

Why? Because whether we-are-what-we-eat, or we-are-what-what-we-eat-eats, we should be putting good things in our bodies. For the sake of our health we’ve got to be interested in our food supply. With 90% of groceries being sold by supermarkets we have to rely on labels rather than a chat over the counter with a knowledgeable grocer or the stall with a market vendor.

My favourite foods are those that require no ingredient list. Primary produce, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit. Followed by those foods that have just a few ingredients, all of which I recognise. I’m talking about delicious things like cheese, chocolate, tinned sardines and chilli sauce. The three musketeers (and D’Artagnan) of delectability.

I read food labels because I like to know what I’m eating, but also I like to see what nifty ‘innovations’ are being developed. Innovation, or NPD (new product development), is a constant and necessary part of being a food company. New products create excitement and we want excitement from our food. 

So I read the ingredients list, the Nutritional Information Panel or NIP, who made it, and the best-before date. All of these label elements are mandatory in New Zealand along with the batch code. Each element of the label gives me information as to what it actually is I am putting in my mouth. It’s fascinating reading and the fact that I read the food labels means I often shop alone. I’m on the lookout for the ubiquitous soy and sugar. I avoid these.

The ‘Best Before’ is just a guide rather than a mandatory date. It’s legal to sell goods with expired dates and we all know that soft cheese is better after the ‘best before’. A ‘Use-buy’ date is another matter. This is applied to foods that must not be sold or consumed on or after that date, including fresh meat, seafood, and other items that could be harmful.

The labelling laws are different if you buy goods from the place they were made. When buying bangers from the supermarket the ingredients list won’t be printed on the label but it must be available for the consumer to read if requested. I requested the ingredient list for sausages at my local store and they couldn’t find it. Tricky if you have allergies.

Allergens must be printed in bold. Often followed by the ‘made in a facility that also processes nuts’ caveat. Basically, over to the consumer to take responsibility. What!? Personal responsibility for that which you put into your body!? We’ve come a long way from that idea over the last fifty years.

Usefully, ingredients must be listed in the order in which they are present by weight. Good for checking if water and thickeners dominate.

Once the marketing department starts to colour-in the outlines drawn by law, all kinds of wonderful mental pictures are painted. Quickly a home-made, artisan-harvested, natural, pasture-to-plate, nutritionist approved, restaurant quality, gourmet, family recipe, farmhouse-style, traditional Bolognese-inspired luncheon sausage is ready to take to market. 90% fat-free. 

It’s baloney! Green-washed, heritage-washed and gourmet-washed.

Talking of processed meat products, this is the category in shops where the inclusion of the most surprising ingredients and the most surprising omission of key ingredients takes place. Did you know that half of shaved ham contains no pig? Well not quite, but cheaper brands of the sandwich staple are 50% pork. The rest is made of potato, pea, and tapioca starch, water, thickeners, various flavour extracts and a firming agent. Water adds to the moist texture and the company profits in equal measure.

I don’t know if all those additions are bad for us, but Hippocratically they should be good for us rather than just not bad. I think rather it’s a case of let your food be our profit.

The question is “How can shaved ham be just 50% pork?”. The answer is because that is the rule. Processed meat products must be at least 50% meat, including sausages, apart from vegan sausages. The culturally appropriated non-meat imitation of a banger touts the sausage moniker, whereas the ever popular BBQ kids treat, the Sizzler, can’t claim to be a sausage as it contains just 49% meat. It’s the wurst of both worlds.

Take note of the food labels I say! 

Here’s my bossy advisory:

1. Eat mainly primary produce with no ingredient list.

2. Don’t buy anything with more than five ingredients. Chocolate, cheese, crackers and chardonnay qualify, so no real hardship there.

3. Don’t buy highly processed vegan meat alternatives. If you don’t want to eat meat then don’t, but do not eat pretend meat either.

4. Be sceptical: ‘Based on a family recipe’ means that it’s not a family recipe; Pringles are less than 50% potato. If it’s cheap and seems too good to be true … you know the rest.

5. Shop as close to the source as you can. Butchers, bakers, growers.

6. Break the rules now and again to avoid that superiority complex. 

Ian Thomas is a caterer and formerly free range egg farmer, cooking demonstrator, and manager of a commercial food production business. He specialises in cooking paella. paellaagogo.com

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3 Comments

  1. One concern of mine is country of origin. Many manufacturers state (I asked them) that they couldn’t possibly know where they sourced their ingredients from!! I thought they would know from a cost basis!!

  2. I like frozen berries, which I rinse under the tap to defrost before adding to breakfast, or add straight to smoothies. Wairoa New World stopped stocking NZ grown berries some time ago, then, after a hep scare, placed a Health Dept warning on the freezer door saying all non-NZ berries should be boiled. I’ve asked them several times to stock NZ product, to no avail. They seem to be wilfully acting on the premise that consumers don’t give a toss about warnings, additives, labelling. An assistant said as much. By putting the warning up they cover their back, which is all the law requires.

  3. It should not surprise you that I have complained about MPI about New World and Pak n Save not labelling their bakery goods with allergen labelling and the fact they do not have staff in “ingredients department”, the ingredients department doesn’t exist. I have stopped buying baked goods from there and I had the answer from a employee at Metro, New World. The idiots at their head office upgrading the labelling software didn’t build in a custom feature for a larger label, so staff in other branches of Pak n Save and New World cannot use a different label to include allergens. As their products don’t meet mandatory Food Safety requirements, 35,000 members of Allergy NZ were alerted, this was back in 2019. I have been a label reader for over 15 years since I have severe food allergies and cannot afford to put up with their stupidity for avoiding compliance.

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