Don’t be misled by what’s on the food label

Understanding a product's nutrition label can be confusing. Here are some pointers to help you out

Woman checking food labelling in supermarket

Have you ever picked one grocery item over another just because of the health claims on the label? You bet! We all get drawn to anything that is labelled "healthy", "fat-free", "sugar-free" etc. We believe that nutrition facts printed on labels of packaged food are accurate and the manufacturer provides the information in good faith. However, that's not always the case. Often, the information on the label can be misleading.

A nutrition label can vary from being reasonably honest to outrightly deceptive. Indeed, the information can be portrayed in such a manner that the consumer is made to believe that a particular product is “Healthy” or “Good” even when it's not necessarily so.

Consider the words "Cholesterol Free", which are used so loosely that you may believe that a particular product is specially made to be so. However, the fact is that some products are by nature cholesterol-free. For instance, vegetable oils are inherently free of cholesterol and thus labelling it as "Cholesterol Free" implies that the manufacturer or marketer is deliberately misguiding the consumers.

Another example is when manufacturers use confusing terms. For instance "Wheat flour" sounds wholesome, right? Turns out that it’s a code for refined white flour, which is not healthy at all.

We can avoid falling in such traps laid for uninformed or misinformed consumers by learning to read the labels and making informed purchases. Refer the label below

Nutrition Facts
Pic Courtesy: tufts.edu

Serving Size

Start reading your label from here. This will tell you the size of a single serving and the total number of servings per package. E.g. This particular sample of a nutrition label says the container serves two servings and each serving is 228 grams or one cup.

Check Calories

Check the calories per serving. In this label it's 250 cals/cup and if you consume the whole pack you are getting 500 cals.

Percentage Daily Value

These numbers reflect in percent the amount of nutrients you get from one serving of this particular product towards your daily diet. Use it to choose foods that are high in the nutrients you should get more of, and low in the nutrients you should get less of.  5% or less is low, 20% or more is high. So a 25% Daily Value of vitamin C might be a great choice but a food contributing to 25% Daily Value of sugars may be a bad choice.

Limit these nutrients

The following nutrients are normally calorie dense or may contribute to conditions such as hypertension or cardiovascular disease.

  1. Fat: Calories from fat should constitute no more than 20% of the total calories. On the nutrition label, items are listed in descending order by weight, so the position of an item in the list indicates whether there's a little of it or a lot.

    Fat free

    Watch out for the term "Fat Free". By just displaying the term "Fat Free' the product has a 90% advantage of being picked up over its competitor on the shelf. The term gained momentum after saturated fats and trans fat got flak from the health fraternity for the harmful effects they have on our body.

    Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, one should not consume more than 11-13 grams of saturated fat and very little, preferably zero, trans fat. Don’t blindly choose “fat free” or “low fat” as it might not mean calorie free. In order to enhance the flavour of low fat food, manufacturers often add extra sugar, which adds to extra calories.

  2. Sodium: The thumb rule of sodium intake is that the milligrams of sodium per serving should be less than the calories per serving.If your diet is 2000 kcal, you should keep the sodium intake to 2000 or preferably 1500 milligrams. If you can keep the ratios below 1:1 with each item you eat, you'll stay under your salt limit.

Beneficial nutrients

Make sure you get enough beneficial nutrients such as dietary fibre, protein, calcium, iron, vitamins and other nutrients every day.

  1. Dietary fibre: Look for at least 3-5 grams of dietary fibre per 100 calories.
  2. Protein: You can stop worrying about this one. Protein is found in nearly every food, from chicken to oatmeal. As long as you're consuming enough calories from a variety of foods to maintain a healthy weight, you're likely getting the recommended amount of protein. The thumb rule is you should be eating 0.8gm to 1 gm/ kg body weight of protein.
  3. Minerals & vitamins: Read the label to see how much calcium the food contains.
    » 5% DV or less is low.
    » 20% DV or more is high.
    » Select foods that are high in minerals and vitamins as often as possible.

Some pointers to help you make a more informed choice

No added sugar” or “Sugar-free”

Sugar-free products have less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving, but they still contain calories and carbohydrates from other sources.

When buying bread

When shopping for bread, look for the words whole grain or 100% whole wheat. It’s not enough if it says multigrain. Check the ingredients and see the order in which the ingredients are listed. First on the list means higher quantity and vice-versa.

Don’t go by colour alone while buying bread. Some darker breads or crackers may have caramel or food colour and are no healthier than highly refined white breads.

Look for bread with less than 100 calories and 150 milligrams of sodium per slice, and at least three grams of fibre (which rules out white bread).

Gluten free

Many companies are trying to capitalise on the buzzword “gluten” these days. Gluten is a protein found in grains. Unless one suffers from gluten allergy or celiac and metabolic syndrome, it  hardly matters if your food contains gluten.

Serving size

Food labels can be tricky with serving sizes. You need to brush up math basics to get this right. To make a product look low in fat or calories, labels may list information based on a tiny, unrealistic serving size. So, in order to get a realistic picture, you need to calculate the calories based on the portions you eat.

All natural claim

 “All Natural” a widely made claim is often misleading. There is no regulatory definition for “all-natural". The rule here is read the ingredients and if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it as the product is probably not as natural as it claims.

Spending two minutes extra in the shopping market aisle will help you be a more aware consumer and in the course of time you will be an expert in decoding the ever elusive food label.

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