Oct 9, 2018

A primer on how to read food labels

Image Source: https://fssai.gov.in/EatRightMovement/back.jsp

 Recently, I came across this FSSAI page that talks about decoding back of the pack. The explanation is at a very high level and doesn't include any useful details whatsoever, that will help the consumer understand the ingredients and make a purchase decision. My guess is that they don't want consumers to dive into any further details.
This post below is a summary of how to read and interpret food labels. This post is intended for those who have never read food labels before and would like some pointers to get started. Readers who have read my previous posts can skim through or treat this post as a revision :-)

Whenever you pick a packaged food from a shop/supermarket, the first thing you do is ignore all the attractive images and taglines in the front of the pack. Simply flip over and turn to the back of the pack.
  1. Firstly, check the manufacturing date and expiry date. The product shouldn't have gone past the expiry date or shouldn't be too close to expiry. Might sound very basic, but many people don't even check this, especially senior citizens.
  2. Check the expiry date/best before. If it is greater than 3-4 months, be a little cautious that there might be preservatives added to extend the shelf life.
  3. Look at the ingredients list. 
    1. Count the number of ingredients. The higher the number of ingredients, the higher the chances of the product being highly processed. 5-6 "identifiable" ingredients is okay but we should be concerned if it exceeds this limit.
    2. Among the ingredients, count the number of ingredients that starts with INS or E followed by a number. Usually, they will be listed as emulsifiers, stabilizers, acidity regulators, improvers, preservatives etc. This is especially important for foods that you consume on a daily basis - breakfast cereal, ketchup, bread, chocolate spread etc. If the pack doesn't have any such ingredient, then it might be classified as "OK to buy"
    3. The order in which the ingredients are listed matter a lot. The first ingredient is the one with the highest quantity. Check the first three ingredients. If it is either sugar, wheat flour or refined vegetable oil, then you can conclude it as having either high-sugar, high-refined-carbs or high-unhealthy-fats respectively. For eg, Nutella's first ingredient is Sugar.
    4. If you see "wheat flour" listed as one of the ingredients, it means it is refined wheat flour (maida). If whole wheat flour is used, the name would be explicitly listed as "whole wheat flour".
    5. If the brand claims as "multi-grain", check the percentage of various other grains. Chances are that they might be very less. If the brand claims as "zero sugar", check for artificial sweeteners. 
    6. Sugar comes in various names and avatars. If you see ingredients such as liquid glucose, invert syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose etc, then you can conclude that it is loaded with sugar.
    7. Regarding fats, look at the source of oils used. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are the worst. 
  4. Now that you have gone through the ingredients list, you would have a fair idea of what's inside the pack. Turn your attention to serving size, number of servings and the quantity of the pack. Usually all three metrics will be given. If not, the quantity of the pack and serving size will be provided, using which you can decipher the number of servings. 
  5. Take a look at the nutrition facts table.
    1. Based on step #4, figure out whether the nutrition facts table is applicable for "per-serving" or for the whole pack. 
    2. Unless you are into counting calories, you can skip the calories part. I usually focus on the macro-nutrients.
    3. Under carbohydrates, you will see sugar listed. 1 tsp of sugar is equivalent to 4 gm. Calculate the tsps of sugar per serving. If it is greater than 2 tsp, you can conclude that it is a high-sugar product.
    4. Look at the quantity of sodium per serving. Since there are no strict regulations on sodium, many brands conveniently skip it (McCain frozen foods for example). If the sodium quantity is greater than 200mg per serving, you can conclude that it is high on salt. These are not industry-defined standards which could be biased or "fixed" by big food conglomerates. This is how I as a mom evaluate a product. 
    5. If the pack says "high fibre", "high protein", "high calcium" etc, look for the exact values in the nutrition facts table. If the serving contains more than 7gm of fibre per serving, then it can be considered as a high fibre food. Most brands that claim high fibre hardly contain 2-3gm.
    6. It is also important to figure out the source of these "nutrients". Quaker Oats milk claims that it is high in fibre but if you look at the source of that fibre, it is polydextrose and not oats.
This might seem like a lot of steps, but trust me, once you get into the habit of reading labels, this would become second nature to you. You would be able to decipher the ingredients in less than a minute. Let's become more mindful of our grocery shopping. Let's invest that time to read through the labels for the sake of our good health.
Hope you find this post helpful. If you have any questions or need further clarification, do share in the comments below.

Oct 4, 2018

3 reasons why I would choose idli over healthy pizza

Last week, we celebrated D's birthday and hosted a small party for a group of her friends (aged 3-8 years). As always, I stuck to my no-junk-food rule. I had taken the help of a friend who cooks amazing North Indian food to prepare snacks for the birthday party.  She gave me a wide variety of options and I selected
Pooris and aloo gravy
Veg cutlet
Dahi bhalla

Ofcourse, birthday cake was also there!

What's the one food that unites all urban kids? The answer is pizza. It is the default item in all birthday parties. I so wanted to change that. Why can't it be pooris or dahi vadas? Or for that matter any other Indian food? Why are our kids crazy about pizza, noodles and pasta? I tried to see if an Indian snack menu like the above would appeal to young kids of this generation.

Although the food was yummy and tasty (adults devoured it), the kids hardly ate anything. Except for the cake and lemonade, they just nibbled a few bites of poori.

Wrong judgment call from my side. But I just cannot compromise on my food beliefs. One might ask, it is just one birthday party, why can't the kids eat what they want? Kids go to atleast 2-3 parties a month and the menu is the same - junk food, pizza, sandwiches or noodles. They eat the same during weekends too. Maathi yosikkalaame! (let's think differently). D ate a couple of pooris and half a dahi vada. I guess I should just feel happy about that and not worry too much. But I couldn't.

I had posted this on Instagram to let out my thoughts but I couldn't sleep that night. My mind was extremely active, thinking about how this problem can be solved.

There were a couple of constructive comments to this Insta post of mine, that got me thinking even more. 

" I dont think it should be about Western (pizza and pasta) vs Indian (Samosa and chat). Even pizza can be healthy if it is made from sourdough or ragi gluten free base."

"I don't see any harm in making your own whole what pizza dough at home or buying organic whole grain pasta or Millet noodles.... Its of course not in a daily basis...it depends on each one what you want to eat and how healthy u wanna make it.simple. There's nothing wrong in healthyfying non Indian dishes..and as a foodie, the challenge is to make all the non Indian dishes as healthy and as tasty as possible."

I respect these alternative perspectives but here are my reasons why I would want my child to love and eat Indian foods rather than a healthy pizza.

What's the need?
Why do we need to pick pizza/pasta/noodles and take the effort (and/or pay a premium) to healthify it when we have inherently healthy dishes like idli, poha, kichdi, paratha and more? It is okay to indulge in non-Indian foods once in a while, irrespective of whether they are healthified or not. But the more I observe, I notice that kids are overly becoming dependent on such popular foods. Any party you go to, you find these dishes. You go to a restaurant, kids would like to order them. You find them in a school lunch caterer menu. I wouldn't be surprised if a traditional wedding menu will start to include these items (maybe, it is already happening)

Are we losing our identity?
One might argue, "What's wrong? We have to adapt to the modern times". My point is "Isn't it our responsibility to pass on our food traditions and values to our children?". Food, clothing and language are all part of one's identity. Shouldn't we be worried that we are losing our identity from all directions? As parents, it is our responsibility to pass on the food wisdom to our kids. People who are born in the 70s and 80s are what I call "bridge generation". They have had exposure to traditional foods, recipes and food customs from their parents/grandparents while growing up. The current generation of kids don't seem to get this knowledge from parents or grandparents. Globalization, media, availability of junk food, peer pressure etc have pushed native Indian cuisines out of their selection criteria. I find it scary to know that if I don't teach my daughter her "mother cuisine", she would no longer have that connection to her local food. 

Dependency on market:
Even if you don't agree to the above two reasons, I hope you can relate to this important point.

In order to healthify these non-Indian popular dishes, most people are dependent on the market
  • millet noodles
  • whole wheat pasta
  • whole wheat / multigrain bread
Firstly, the market dictates the price and position such products in the premium category because of the health tag. Not everyone can afford such products.

Second, such products tagged under "health" category are marketed heavily but if you carefully look into the ingredients and nutrition table, you'd realize it is just a eye-wash tweaking the ingredients a little bit but they aren't really as healthy as they claim to be. Someone recently shared with me the ingredients list of "quinoa pasta", which had just around 35% quinoa and the rest was durum wheat semolina. 

The brand Cornitos Nacho Crisps has launched a "Quinoa" nachos with the tagline "the healthy nachos" but if you look at the ingredients, it has ONLY 10% quinoa. 

I had earlier written about brown bread and why it isn't healthy as many believe.

As long as we take charge of the healthification process (that's not even a word but hope the meaning is clear) and not depend on the market to do it for us, it is okay. But people who make such preparations from scratch are an exception. The majority of the affluent population end up buying premium looking packs of noodles and pasta from Nature's Basket, thinking they are buying something healthy but without realizing what's in the ingredients list. 

To prepare any non-Indian dishes, a range of packaged products are lined up on the supermarket shelves. I wrote a separate post on this recently, please check it out if you haven't.

In conclusion, I would like to make sure that 80-90% of my daughter's daily menu includes dishes that I have eaten while growing up. I strongly believe that eating local, seasonal and traditional is the ONLY way to good health.

Sep 19, 2018

Dr Oetker's FunFoods Zero Fat Smokey Pineapple Dressing Review

I always come up with a bunch of blog ideas after a Chennai trip. The reasons are many - 
1) I get to watch TV (and the ads) 
2) I get to read newspaper 
3) I get valuable advice from family elders, who blindly believe whatever junk food brands claim - high calcium / high protein / high fibre and what not.
During the long weekend trip, I stumbled upon this ad of "Dr.Oetker's FunFoods Smokey Pineapple dressing". What grabbed my attention was, you guessed it right, "zero fat". If the brand just says "high taste, taste mein hero, super yum" and similar such phrases, my brain would selectively ignore it but the moment the health buzz words are thrown in, I become alert and watch the ad with interest.

Let's clarify a basic formula. Packaged foods are made addictive due to 3 elements - sugar, salt and oil. If you remove one of the 3 elements, then the brands compensate it by increasing the other 2. Yes, there are other artificial flavor enhancers too, but these 3 elements in various proportions are the key to any junk food formulation.

So now that FunFoods claims "zero fat", obviously they must have increased sugar and salt in their dressing. I wanted to confirm my hypothesis. As I searched for this brand in Big Basket, look what I found in their ingredients list:

So disappointed! This is exactly the reason why we need strong regulations in place where the e-commerce players are forced to list the ingredients of packaged foods. If we shop offline, atleast there is a chance that we might take a look at the pack and might read the details. I know not many of us do that but there is hope.

I then searched in Flipkart and found the details I was looking for.

Ingredients List:
Water, Pineapple (20%), 
Sugar, Liquid Glucose, Iodised Salt, 
Acidity Regulators (INS260, INS296, INS330),
Jaggery, Stabilizers (INS440, INS415),
Mixed Spices, Preservatives (INS211, INS202), Spice Extract

1) There are no fat related ingredients and so it is true about zero fat. But look at the sugar, along with liquid glucose. This dressing contains 19.4 gm of sugar per 100 gm. Pineapple is in itself a sweet tasting fruit, then why do we need 20% sugar?

2) The nutrition table doesn't list the quantity of sodium. It is high time that FSSAI puts forth a regulation to list sodium in ALL packaged foods. It is certainly not optional anymore.

3) It is important that we take a note of the various additives in the form of acidity regulators and stabilizers. One might argue that if we consume them occasionally, it may not be a concern. But these brands want consumers to include such dressings in our meals on a daily basis. They are pitching this dressing to be used NOT just for salads but also as dips or in wraps and subs. The more we consume, the more profits they make. But do we know the long term effects of consuming such additives on a daily basis?

4) The expiry date of this dressing is 6 months from manufacture date. This long shelf life is made feasible because of the preservatives:
INS 211 -  Sodium Benzoate. I wrote about this preservative in detail in my earlier post on Kissan tomato ketchup. Do check it out.
INS 202 - Potassium Sorbate. In a study, potassium sorbate is seen to be genotoxic to the human peripheral blood lymphocytes (white blood cells). In another study, potassium sorbate in combination with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) caused mutagenecity and DNA damaging activity.

Which dubakoor (meaning "fake") doctor comes up with such formulation? Or the Dr in the brand name plays a similar role to that of a doctor coat wearing lady in the ad promoting Pediasure for immunity?

We need to be quite cautious about these new products that are entering Indian supermarket shelves before we embrace them blindly as "cool, hip and modern". We deserve better food, not such chemical loaded dressings that cause DNA damage.


Sep 15, 2018

Restore ruminations

Last evening, I finally made time to visit the organic store "Restore" in Kottivaakkam, Chennai. It was such a beautiful sight to see organic dry groceries (traditional rice varieties, millets and pulses) stocked up in huge tins. There were also many kinds of cold-pressed oils. Customers are supposed to bring their own containers and pick up the required stuff. It brought back memories of my childhood where we used to visit a "Chettiyaar Kadai" every month for groceries. The annas would pack the groceries in newspapers and we would pick up chekku oils in oil cans. No plastic packaging whatsoever.

I didn't go to Restore with the intention of buying any groceries and so didn't carry any containers. I just bought a couple of items that were packed in plastic bags along with a few books. As we were driving back home, my mind started to wander, "Wish I had a similar store in Bangalore. Oh wait, if it is not there, why can't I start something with a similar promise - organic grocery store with no packaging? Seems like a good idea. Need to think about it".

We then went to Besant Nagar Beach - a mandatory visit that my daughter D loves. It was a Friday evening and the beach wasn't crowded. As we walked down the sand, D started to pick some plastic spoons and plastic lids from water bottles. As she sat down to play with her collection, I couldn't bear to see the sheer amount of plastic on the beach sand - plastic spoons, plastic straws, green lids from plastic bottles etc. I started picking handfuls of such plastic waste and was dumping them in the garbage bin nearby. It was anger, frustration and helplessness that pushed me to do a teeny tiny bit of cleanup. After a few times of collecting and dropping the plastic waste, I noticed a stray dog that was defecating on the sand. I stopped and asked myself, "What am I doing? I cannot do such impulsive cleanup acts. I need proper gloves, a bag to collect the waste and drop them in the garbage bin". I stopped and we proceeded to the beach. The beautiful waves, clear sky and the stunning sight of horizon calmed me a little bit but I was lost in my thoughts. 

The news about the hurricanes, the recent Kerala floods and many such calamities are a proof that mother earth is fighting back. How much we have taken her for granted? We are destroying our planet in all possible ways. Our heinous acts have led to a state where the air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is contaminated and the food we eat is loaded with chemicals. 

A few days back, we went to a "health" restaurant in Bangalore - the food was good, the service was awesome but the price for a meal for 3 was around Rs.1500. If I want to switch to organic groceries at home, I have to pay double the price. I'm also quite suspicious about the claims made by various organic brands. I read somewhere that it would take between 4-5 years to convert the soil which had been previously cultivated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers into a soil fit for organic produce. How come we see a sudden proliferation of organic produce everywhere? How can I as a consumer validate organic claims? I might be able to afford organic but what about middle and lower income-group of people? Does that mean only if you have a high disposable income, you can eat good quality food?

It was also the day of 2.0 teaser launch. The underlying message that I interpret was that the birds are fighting against mobile phones. "The world is meant not only for humans" - how true! The atrocities towards orangutans because of rapid deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia just because our demand for palm oil has increased and we want to eat food out of a packet. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every decision of ours has repercussions. We are constantly making trade-offs that impact not just our health and life but also the other species on the planet who have equal rights just like us. Why do we stand tall with that ego that we humans are superior? 

There are just too many questions running in my mind. I may or may not find the answers. I don't want to feel depressed about the state of the world. Hopefully these questions will lead me to someplace productive and impactful.

Aug 20, 2018

Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli Review

Over the past couple of months, I have been conducting workshops for parents of young children to share my understanding of packaged foods. One of the most common questions I get is “What about muesli? Is it healthy? Can I have it everyday for breakfast?”.

Firstly, I would highly recommend that you try and find out the answer by yourself. 

There are 1000s of packaged food brands in the supermarkets and I have managed to analyze ONLY around 50 of them so far. My intention is NOT to analyze each and every product. Rather my objective is to show how easy it is to understand and decipher the ingredients by yourself, so that as a consumer, you can make the right choice, before you add an item to your shopping cart.

Now to the How? 
Read the labels - Ingredients list and nutrition facts table. Yes, as simple as that.

Many years back, I used to have a bowl of Baggrys muesli every single day for breakfast. Because it was quick and convenient. After I started reading the ingredients, I no longer buy it. As a family, we no longer do the “cereal” business in the mornings anymore. The umpteen number of synthetic chemicals in the form of preservatives and flavours, sugar hidden in various forms and on top of it, the expensive price we had to pay for each box - we realised how ridiculous this habit is! The recent news about Glyphosate present in numerous breakfast cereals in the US is something that we all need to be aware of, especially those living in India who associate eating "cereal" breakfast with their self-esteem.

Yesterday, we had a bowl of fruit salad for breakfast and today it was Rava Upma with a little lemon pickle. Our other options are idli, dosa, paratha, poha etc.

Let’s see the Ingredients of Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli - Mixed fruit with almonds & raisins

Rolled Oats (40.3%)
Whole wheat flakes 28.4% (Wheat, sugar, iodised salt, Malt extract, antioxidant - INS 322)
Strawberry crush 10.9% (Sugar, water, strawberry pulp, thickener (INS 440), acidity regulator (INS 330 & INS 331), Contains Class II preservatives (INS 224 & INS 211))
Apple Juice Concentrate (3.5%)
Pineapple Crush (3.5%)
Broken rolled wheat
Raisins (3%)
Almonds (2.1%)
Invert Syrup
Wheat bran
Oat bran
Honey (1%)
Beetroot powder

(Contains added flavour (S) - Natural, nature identical flavouring substances)

1) Take a note of the two Class II preservatives
INS 224 - potassium metabisulfite. May cause asthmatic and allergic reactions.
INS 211 - sodium benzoate. Linked to hyperactivity and asthma. When combined with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), sodium benzoate may form benzene, a known carcinogen.

Why would we want to consume such harmful chemicals on a daily basis?

2) For a Serving size of 30gm, the amount of added Sugar (Sucrose) is 2.4 gm (or a little more than 1/2 tsp of sugar). It isn’t much, we might think. But take a look at this ingredient “Invert syrup”. It is composed of equal parts of glucose and fructose (the other kinds of sugar), the amounts of which are not shared. Having tasted this pack of Muesli, I can say that it is definitely on the sweeter side (much more than 1/2 tsp of sugar per serving size).

3) Most of us switch to oats and muesli mainly because of the “fibre”. But do they really have high fibre as they claim? For a serving size of 30 gm, the Dietary fibre present is ONLY 3.2 gm. The oats and wheat flakes are highly processed, that they hardly have any fibre. Starting the day with local fruits like guava, papaya and banana will give us much more fibre, along with various other vitamins and minerals.

This is just one example of a Muesli brand. There are many other brands such as Kelloggs, Soulfull, Saffola etc. Before you pick one, read the ingredients - Are they all natural? Are there any unfamiliar names? What’s the sugar level per serving? 

Mindful shopping is the need of the hour. Let’s not dump things to our shopping cart, just because we have habituated ourselves to certain products and routines.

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