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Do you know what you're eating?

Packaged food labels aren’t always what they claim to be. Here’s how not to let words fool you.

health and fitness Updated: Oct 09, 2007 19:54 IST
Sai Raje

You know every ingredient that goes into your home-cooked meals and how much of each is used. But take a look at the label of contents on a packaged food product or drink and it’s an entirely different game of sifting through tall, smartly-worded claims and incomplete content information.

In several countries, the labelling of packaged food and drink is done very meticulously. Right down to the details of what percentage of the required daily value of a nutrient, vitamin C for example, is present in a particular packaged product.

Actually, foodmanufacturers owe it to us to mention that information. Fortunately, Indian laws will soon catch up with the boom in the packaged food market.

The latest amendment to the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955, with its section on Packing and Labelling of Foods will be enforced by Maharashtra’s Food and Drug Administration in February 2008, making detailed nutrient and calorie value information on every food and drink label compulsory.

Food manufacturers will have to indicate on their labels, among other things, the amount and type of fatty acids (even trans fat), calorie value and amount of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals per 100 gm, or ml, of the product. Moreover, companies making claims about their product being enriched or fortified with particular nutrients will have to mention their specific values on the labels.

As of now, there are a few companies that are already going by these rules and many others who are still to begin following them. So, until food labelling is regularised, you need to smartly decipher both the information-packed labels as well as labels that hardly detail their contents or ingredients.

The detailed label
A detailed label, will have every nutrient in the product detailed under calorie as well as gm per 100 gm of the product. Don’t get bogged down by the tables and percentages. A careful look through the label will help you use the information to your advantage.

Serving size
First, check the product’s serving size. If the serving size is 50 gm and the total product package weighs 300 gm, it’s easy to figure out that there are six servings in the pack. So if you eat half the pack, you are eating three servings in one go.

Calorie values
Next, check the detailed calorie values for every nutrient. Well-detailed labels separately mention calories from fat and the type of fat contained. If the calories in one serving size are 400, and its calories from fat are 200, and you gorge on two servings, the label helps you figure that you just consumed 400 calories from fat.

“Go in for foods with less than two per cent saturated and hydrogenated fat,” advises Dr Nupur Krishnan, clinical nutritionist and director of Biologics Healthcare.

Trans fat
A big danger zone with processed food is trans fat. Trans fats are formed by chemically changing oil through a process called hydrogenation to increase the product’s shelf life and flavour. A diet high in trans fats has shown to increase risk of heart disease. Ideally, a person should not have more than five gm or a teaspoon of trans fat in a day. If a food has the words ‘partially hydrogenated oil’ on the label, it contains trans fat.

Percentage of daily values
This will show you how much of each nutrient your body needs, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and how much a particular food product gives you. A five per cent or less of the daily value percentage is considered low and a 20 per cent or more is supposed to be high.

“Many products which market themselves as being fortified or enriched with a particular nutrient often fall short when you look at the percentage daily value of that nutrient. Just because a product says it’s protein enriched on the label, doesn’t mean it’s really so,” says Dr Anand Bhave, a general practitioner.

The no-details label


For food products that don’t have detailed nutrient or calorie information on their labels, take the health claims they make on the label’s front with a pinch of salt. Go straight to where the ingredients are mentioned.

Steer clear of tall claims...
Many packaged food labels are just tall claims.

“Oils and other products like butter and margarine often make claims about being ‘low cholesterol’, ‘managing cholesterol’, ‘low fat’ or even being ‘heart healthy’. It’s best to ignore all such claims.

No oil is healthy for the heart. After all, they all contain the same number of calories. And what’s the point of a so-called ‘low cholesterol’ oil if you are going to fry puris in it?” says Dr Ganesh Kumar, chief interventional cardiologist, LH Hiranandani Hospital.

“If a product says ‘low cholesterol’ and lacks nutrient or calorie value details, just check whether it has saturated fats listed in its ingredients. If it does, the ‘low cholesterol’ label makes no sense. Your liver is going to produce cholesterol on consuming that saturated fat anyway,” adds Krishnan.

...and smart words
Some products just use words smartly on their labels to mislead consumers into believing they have certain benefits. A classic example of this is ‘brown’ bread.

“It’s easy to be misled into thinking that ‘brown’ bread is made from whole wheat and not maida. Most manufacturers are just using caramelised sugar to give the bread that colour. Don’t buy any bread pack that says so on its labels. Look out for ‘whole wheat’ bread instead. And if your ‘brown’ bread has refined flour listed as an ingredient, it’s definitely not made of whole wheat,” says Krishnan.

Finally, it’s not just about taking food labels at face value but sifting through all the information you find on themto look for what you really need.

(Sources:McKinleyHealth Centre, University of Illinois and the FDA, United States)