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Food labels: How to read them right

Food labels: How to read them right

Reading the nutritional value, calorie content and ingredient list will help people choose and consume healthy foods
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K / Happiest Health

Before eating wisely one should buy wisely. Staying healthy and fit is just not possible if one is not careful while purchasing food, especially the packaged foods from the local supermarket. Most people fail to go through the ingredient list and food labels on these packages and end up consuming food that takes a toll on their health in the long run.

Why you should read the food labels on packaged food items

Experts point out that it is essential for people to understand the meaning and relevance of the ingredient list and the quantity chart on the food labels for good health. Often a lot of processed food contains hidden sugars and fat which could derail your healthy routine.

“Ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce or salad dressings are high in added sugars and sodium. They are harmful in excess,” explains Bengaluru based dietitian Sangeeta Bhatt.

These are some of the important markings on packaged food labels:

1. Serving information

You should check the number of servings on the package and the serving size mentioned under the serving information on the food labels. “The serving size mentioned is the usual or standard amount people may eat or drink. But it doesn’t imply that you have to consume the serving size mentioned,” explains Bhatt.

As per the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI) packaging regulations, the serving size should be maintained as the number of servings per container or packet. It is also mentioned according to the total weight or volume in grams or millilitre. According to the latest regulations issued in 2020, serving or serving size may also be given in common household measurements like teaspoon, tablespoon or cups based on the type of food.

2. Net weight and serving per 100 gm

The information on the nutritional facts label is generally based on one serving either per 100 gram or 100 ml of the food item. However, most of the packaged food items will have a net weight of more than 100 gm or 100 ml. Therefore, if the weight of the food is 500 gm on the packet, then the entire packet will have five times the calories and nutrients mentioned as standard serving size.

“If one eats more of these foods, they will end up consuming more calories than the standard serving size of the products with regular calories,” explains Mumbai based nutritionist Nidhi Joshi.

3. Energy or calories per serving

This is the calorie counter and the unit used is kilocalories. Calories are measured as per servings and the net weight of the packaged food item. If the packet includes three servings and the calorie count is mentioned as 100 kilocalories, then eating the entire packet will pump 300 kilocalories into your body. People are often misled by the words “low-fat” and “low-calorie” and end up consuming more calories than what the body requires. Fat free does not mean calorie free as low-fat items may have as many calories as those with higher fat content.

4. Carbohydrates and added sugars

This is an important label to check if you want to keep diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity at bay. Some products may already have natural sugars, but the manufacturers use additional sugars to enhance its taste. One should be careful about the added sugar content and try to minimise its consumption. As per the FSSAI, ideally all forms of sugar including monosaccharide (glucose, fructose) and disaccharide sugars (maltose, lactose etc) should be marked on the label. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar consumption to 25 gms (six teaspoons) per day for women and 36 gms (nine teaspoons) per day for men.

5. Sodium

Apart from the sugar check, consumers also need to watch out for the quantity of sodium (salt) mentioned in the food label.

“Adults can consume 2300 mg of sodium per day. So if the packet contains more than 500 mg of sodium it is better to stay away from it,” advises Joshi. Low sodium is generally preferred as excess salt could trigger hypertension and other complications.

6. Saturated, unsaturated and trans fats

The lipid levels in the food, all variants including saturated, unsaturated and trans fatty acids are listed under the fats section. It is advised to opt for food with low saturated and trans fatty acid content to minimise risk of cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. While scanning the label you should also check the trans-fat section. “If more than 10 percent of the total calories per serving is coming from saturated or trans-fat, then you should avoid buying it,” says Bhatt.

7. Protein, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals

Food with high levels of these nutrients are generally considered healthy and should be made part of your daily diet.

8. Guidelines for Daily Allowance or Daily Value Percentage (DV %)

This is an indicator of daily nutrient value which is required by an individual who has a 2000 calorie diet. Foods with five percent or less DV are considered to be of low nutrient value and those higher than 20 percent are considered to be of high nutrient value.


READ NEXT: How to avoid getting misled by food labels


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