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Use-by or Best-before date?

Q. What’s the difference between Use-by and Best-before?

The Use-by date gives you an idea of how long you can safely consume a food. The food should be eaten or thrown away by the Use-by date for health and safety reasons such as food poisoning. Once passed, the food is not safe to eat, even though you may not see any signs of spoilage like mould or an off-smell.

Generally Use-by dates are found on perishables and short-shelf life foods such as fresh meat packed at the supermarket, packet ham, milk, yoghurt and dairy products as well as many ready-to-heat products like chilled pasta sauce or garlic bread. It is illegal to sell food once past its Use-by date.

Best-before date tells you the time of best eating quality if stored properly according to instructions. A product will remain fresh and of good quality right up to its ‘Best before’ date (and sometimes beyond) if it is properly stored, both at home and at the supermarket.

The food is not spoiled immediately after the date and can still be sold if in good condition and not damaged or deteriorated, but its quality has begun to decline.

Most cereals, biscuits, snack foods, flour, eggs, canned and frozen foods are labelled with a Best-before date. Frozen, dried and canned products, in particular, tend to keep their quality for some time after the ‘Best-before’ date.

Manufacturers generally err on the side of caution and set an conservative ‘Best-before’ date to encourage you to eat the product while it is fresh and at its best. So think of the ‘Best-before’ dates as a general guide only.

If it’s in your fridge and passed the Best-before date, use the look-and –sniff test. Provided the food looks and smells as you would expect, it should be safe to eat.

Saturated fat or total fat?

Q. What is the difference between ‘total fat’ and ‘saturated fat’ and which one do I look at if I want to know how much fat is in food?

All packaged foods must show both total fat AND saturated fat on their label. Some foods – if they choose – may also include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This usually applies to oils and margarines that want to show their type of fat.

The total fat is ALL the fat present. This is the figure you want.

It includes saturated fat plus monounsaturated plus polyunsaturated plus trans fat – it’s the sum of these four types. Anyone with heart disease usually only wants to limit the ‘bad’ saturated fat. But if you want to find out how much fat is in food, just be guided by the ‘total fat’ listing. So with olive oil, it contains 80 grams of fat per 100 grams (which is 80 per cent fat) but only a small 15 per cent saturated fat.

Natural vs synthetic additives

Q. Why do some products state ‘No preservatives, no artificial colours and no artificial flavours’ but the list of ingredients state flavour enhancers (621, 627, 631) flavours (270, 262) and colours (160a)?

That’s because the flavours and colours are NATURAL rather than synthetic with no counterpart in nature (artificial). For example, many natural flavours are extracted from herbs or spices, so are close to their natural state.

Flavour (270) is lactic acid which occurs in milk. Colour (160a) is beta-carotene, which is the yellow-orange colour carrots and mango.

Flavour enhancers on the other hand have no flavour of their own but bring out the flavour of other ingredients. No 621 is MSG, a well-known additive in gravies, noodles and sauces while Nos 627 and 631 are similar.

Maltodextrin and gluten

Q. I’m on a gluten-free diet. I’ve noticed maltodextrin on food labels. Does it contain gluten?

Yes. It may contain small fragments of protein particles related to gluten. Maltodextrin is a starch which is used as a thickener or texture modifying agent in foods such as pasta sauces, puddings and cake mixes.

It can be derived from either wheat or maize (corn) and the distinction is important. Maize thickener or maize maltodextrin is gluten-free, but wheat is not.The label will tell you which one is present.

Until a few years ago, wheat starch and maltodextrin were permitted on gluten-free diets for coeliacs. However some coeliacs noticed that they developed symptoms of diarrhoea or bloating every time they ate it. It seems that even such tiny amounts (less than 0.02 per cent) are enough to cause problems for some super-sensitive people. Others however report no effect.

How much sodium?

Q. When comparing the fat or fibre content on the label of a food, I am unsure what level of sodium is acceptable for a healthy diet. Please help!

Salt chemically is sodium chloride and it’s the sodium part that matters. The recommended intake for adults falls between 920 to 2300 milligrams (mg) sodium a day, although the body needs much less than this to survive. However the average Australian consumes more than double this so we’re overdoing the sodium!

You could work out how much sodium you’re eating by totalling your intake from what’s on food labels. A slice of bread has 130mg, a slice of ham has 400mg, a 50g snack pack of crisps 450mg and so on. Vegetables, fruits, oats, milk, meat and fish have low amounts, say less than 20mg per serve.

By law, products labelled ‘low salt’ must have no more than 120mg sodium per 100 grams.

Cooling hot food before storing

Q. It used to be a no-no to put hot food into the fridge because it reduces the temperature inside the fridge. But now we’re also told not to leave food cooling on the bench as this allows bacteria to form. What is correct?

Bacteria in food loves to grow when the temperature is between 5 and 60 degrees Celsius, so food needs to be kept either very cold or very hot to stop the bacterial growth and so prevent food poisoning. The correct practice when storing leftover hot food is to allow it to cool on the bench until it has stopped steaming before placing it in the fridge. Don’t leave it to completely cool as slower cooling provides the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. When reheating food, heat to steaming hot – this will kill any bacteria that may have grown whilst in the fridge. Never reheat food more than once.

Fresh fruit and vegetables

Q. How do green long-life bags work? And do fruit and vegetables kept in them really have the same nutritional properties as fresh?

As they ripen, fruit and vegetables release a gas called ethylene. This helps to continue the ripening process, but ultimately ends up causing the deterioration of fruit and vegetables. The green bags you describe work by absorbing that ethylene gas, slowing the ripening process and therefore the time it takes them to deteriorate. All fresh produce declines in nutritional value as it ages, so any product that delays this aging process will also keep the level of vitamins up. So use them and they will help you maintain nutrition.

No Cholesterol Claims

Q. I have a high cholesterol, so I buy foods with NO CHOLESTEROL on the pack. But I’ve heard that all these foods are misleading. Is this right?

There are many foods which are free of cholesterol in the technical sense but are still high in fat. Examples are potato crisps and most snack foods, margarine, oil, avocadoes, much fast food, biscuits, pastries and toasted muesli.

You need to know the type of fat in these foods. Steer clear of saturated fats which mostly raise blood cholesterol and go for mono- and polyunsaturated fats which tend to lower it. Unfortunately most snack and fast foods are cooked in fats like palm oil or beef tallow which have good keeping qualities and are relatively inexpensive – but add a lot of saturated fat.

Additive watch

Q. Why do food companies have to use additives? And how many are there?

Additives are used to extend shelf life or make a food more convenient or lower in kilojoules. They are grouped into 20 different categories based on what function they perform. Here’s the list of these functions.

On food labels, you will find additives often listed under this functional name plus a code number e.g. sulphur dioxide is used to prolong the life of wine and will be listed as on the bottle as PRESERVATIVE (220).

anti-caking agents
anti-foaming agents
antioxidants
colour retention agents/colour fixatives
colours
emulsifiers
flavour enhancers
flavours
flour treatment agents
food acids
glazing agents
humectants
mineral salts
modified starches
preservatives
propellants
stabilisers
sweeteners
thickeners
vegetable gums/gelling agents

What’s an emulsifier?

Q. What does EMULSIFIER mean on the label?

Emulsifiers are oily substances, which stabilise mixtures and prevent oil and water from separating. In a salad dressing, for instance, an emulsifier keeps the oil and vinegar mixed so they don’t separate into two layers on standing. Emulsifiers are closely related to fats and so can be considered quite safe.

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