Making Sense Of Food Labels
Running to a store to buy processed food? How often do you go beyond the ‘How to make’ instructions and actually read and assess the ingredients?
By Smitha Suresh • 9 min read
A mother, interested in providing sufficient nutrition to the family, should choose packaged foods based on their nutrition labels. She should also understand and interpret the labels correctly.
The goal is to minimise the use of processed, packaged foods in the kitchen as fresh food is available in abundance. Packed foods like wheat flour, brown rice, dal and legumes are standardised in their nutrient content and are not considered as processed food. As a nutritionist, I believe this about processed foods:
The myth: Nutrition labels, ingredients lists and health claims on food products are designed to inform consumers about what is contained in the product.
The reality: Instead, these labels are used by food manufacturers to confuse consumers and mislead them into thinking that their products are healthier (or of a better quality) than they actually are.
Here is a guide that will help demystify some of the confusion and myths behind the labels on packaged foods:
Read the list of ingredients on the label and avoid picking up anything that contains:
- Added sugar as a major ingredient
- Sugar substitutes such as mannitol, xylitol, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS is fortunately, not commonly found in Indian processed foods) and artificial sweeteners like aspartame
- More than 1g of saturated fat per serving
- More than 1g of cholesterol
- More than 2g of total fat per serving
- (Partially) hydrogenated vegetable oil, also known as trans fat
- Sodium nitrate and nitrite
- Artificial colours and flavours
- Products containing monosodium glutamate (MSG) or more than 100 mg of salt per serving if you or any member of your family has high blood pressure or a history of heart disease. Food with high salt content is unhealthy for your children too.
- Some processed foods list wheat flour as an ingredient. Don’t be fooled as it is still only maida.
On The Nutrition Label
This tells you the size of the serving for which the nutrient measurements are listed. Usually, manufacturers have a standard serving size which makes it easier to compare quantity vis-à-vis nutrition value. For example, most labels will have ‘cups’ or ‘pieces’ listed as the serving size, and this is followed by the metric amount in grams. It will also tell you how many servings are there in the box.
With this information, you can compare the serving size with the quantity you would eat. For example, a small packet of Marie biscuits may contain three servings, but suppose you eat the entire quantity? You should do some quick mental math. If you consume the whole packet, you have had three times the amount of nutrients listed on the food label.
You require approx 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. So, sift through different brands of the same item and choose the one with the highest protein content per serving. Snack foods and fried stuff like chips have no significant quantity of protein. Take the hint and avoid these.
This can be divided into simple and complex carbs – and this classification should be there on food labels as well. Always choose those that have a higher amount of complex carbs (whole grains) such as whole wheat, ragi and oats. If simple carbs are higher, it could also mean that this product has a high amount of sugar (in which case, avoid it).
Fats are classified into MUFA (mono-unsaturated fatty acids), PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acids), SFA (saturated fatty acids), cholesterol and trans fatty acids (trans fats). Cholesterol and SFA should ideally be below 1g per serving. If it is higher, choose a different brand and do not compromise on this, as these types of fats are totally unhealthy. Trans fat is always best avoided, while the total fat per serving should be less than 2g if you are committed to making healthy choices.
Vitamins and minerals
Again on the label, manufacturers use the term ‘percentage of daily value’ to define this. Do not buy a product by looking at this part of the label; you will get enough vitamins and minerals by eating fresh food.
If the percentage of daily values of iron, calcium, vitamin A,C or D of a product is more than 25-30%, be wary - the food has probably been fortified. It is almost impossible for a processed food to naturally contain such high amounts of micro-nutrients. Eating such highly fortified foods on a regular basis may cause toxicity. This is not the case with nutrients naturally found in fresh foods like fruits and vegetables.
You might find a label listing all nutrient values (instead of just the vitamins and minerals) as a percentage of your daily requirement for the same. You should not be guided by this as manufacturers base their calculations on a ‘fixed’ calorie intake, whereas calorie requirement actually varies from person to person. So, percentage nutrient values will also vary.
The percent daily value amounts are based on these nutrition guidelines:
- 65% of calories can come from carbohydrates.
- 20% of calories can come from fat, with most fats coming from sources of unsaturated fats.
- 15% of calories can come from protein.
The total calories that are recommended for adults is 1800 - 2000 per day, but this can vary. Do not get too caught up with counting calories – just look at the overall health value.
The percent daily value
Figuring out this information can be complicated. But as a consumer, you can easily gauge whether the food is high or low in a particular nutrient:
- If a food has a daily value of 5% or less of a nutrient, it is considered to be low in that nutrient.
- A food is a good source of a nutrient if the percent daily value is between 10% and 19%.
- If the food has 20% or more of the daily value, it is considered an excellent source of that nutrient.
A food product containing at least 3g of fibre per serving is considered to be reasonably high in fibre. Note that foods claiming to be high in fibre also tend to be high in fat and sugar for palatability, especially breakfast cereals and biscuits.
Not always do they ring true. A 6-month-old child was found to be anaemic, despite having iron-fortified infant formulae, highlighted well on the tin! And then, do you favour sunflower oil because its manufacturers claim that the product has zero cholesterol? The fact is that any product of vegetable origin does not contain cholesterol!
Carefully read the labels as you buy processed foods and decide for yourself whether these are genuinely healthier food choices or not. You will notice that no processed food is ideal. Not only will you spend less money on them, you will also choose those foods that do the least damage to your health.
Smitha Suresh is a renowned nutritionist and child specialist from Chennai
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