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.


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