You go to the supermarket and browse the aisles. Under almost every food category, you see some products carrying the Healthier Choice Symbol. It makes sense for some of these products to be a healthier choice— they may be oats, which is a wholegrain, or milk, which is high in calcium. Yet, some products like dark soy sauce, french fries, and ice cream have the label too! Are they for real? Can they be trusted? Are they really healthy? Read on, and I’ll break down the Healthier Choice Symbol for you, and what it really means.
What is the Healthier Choice Symbol?
The Healthier Choice Symbol was introduced by the Health Promotion Board to help customers quickly identify products that are a healthi-er choice compared to other products within a food category. Note that by that virtue, the product may not necessarily be a healthy choice, even though it could be, in some cases.
Products that carry the Healthier Choice Symbol are also labelled with taglines, which highlight the nutrient that it is compared against other products for. They include:
- Lower in sugar
- No added sugar
- Low glycaemic index
- Lower in sodium
- Lower in saturated fat
- Higher in calcium
- Trans fat free
- Higher in wholegrains
- Eat 2 + 2 servings of fruits and vegetables/day
There are nutrient guidelines that a product has to meet to obtain the symbol. For example, non-carbonated sweetened drinks should have <6g sugar/100g, processed cheese should have <15g fat/100g, and fruits should have no added fat, sodium, or sugar.
How does a product get the Healthier Choice Symbol?
A company has to apply for a license to place the Healthier Choice Symbol on their food product, and the license lasts for 2 years. A new application has to be submitted whenever a product undergoes reformulation.
There is no cost when applying for the symbol. The only cost that companies incur is payment to an independent laboratory to generate a nutrient analysis report for the product. This report is required when applying for the Healthier Choice Symbol. Otherwise, all a company needs to do is spend some time to go through the application process here.
What does the Healthier Choice Symbol mean to me?
All it means is that a product with the symbol is generally healthier for the highlighted nutrient (e.g. sugar, in “Lower in sugar”) than other products in the same category of food.
But…the big but.
When you consider the Healthier Choice Symbol, you have to bear in mind these few points:
1. A product that does not have the symbol may still be a good choice for your shopping basket
There could be a product out there that is the healthiest choice in its food category. Unfortunately, because the company did not obtain a license for the symbol, it’s not highlighted. As a browsing consumer, or one that’s in a rush, there’s a chance you’ll miss great products on the shelves.
Always take some time to compare products that you buy. If you don’t do it, who will? As an example, check out my post on the difference between various tomato-based products you always see on supermarket shelves!
2. When a product contains the symbol, it does not mean it’s healthy as a whole
For example, a packet of frozen nuggets may have the Healthier Choice Symbol and the taglines “Lower in sodium” and “Lower in saturated fat”. However, it is still energy dense, and a higher calorie, lower protein alternative to fresh meat of the same weight.
Similarly, a sweetened beverage may be “Lower in sugar”, but it still offers you nothing but pure sugar—empty calories!
3. A product with the symbol may have the best nutrient profile in its food category, but how healthy it is depends on how you use it
For example, a brand of soy sauce may be labelled “Lower in sodium”. After some investigation, you realise that it is in fact the lowest in sodium out of all the soy sauces in the supermarket. Win!
However, upon using it, perhaps you realise that this soy sauce lacks the taste of your usual soy sauce, and you end up using more of it to flavour your food. In this scenario, it doesn’t matter that this product is healthier; the total amount of sodium you consume still goes up.
At the end of the day, what matters more than the Healthier Choice Symbol on a product is how you use it.
4. There is an abundance of food out in the wet markets that don’t contain the Healthier Choice Symbol but are healthy
- The Healthier Choice Symbol is a guide to healthier products at a glance. There’s a reason why it’s not called the “Healthy Choice Symbol”.
- Like most systems, it is not fool-proof or brainless. Always compare nutrition information panels and ingredient lists on products to determine the true nature of a product.
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