All of us read the label on food packages, since we are so health conscious these days. But, to most of us, these numbers, jargon and signage only partly make sense. More importantly, do you know how to spot the red flags among the maze of details mentioned? Here’s a crash course in label reading, and what you need to look out for in five common packaged food categories.
Ready-to-fry meats (like kebabs and nuggets)
Fat content: Total fats are best kept as low as possible. A 100 gm serving, which is four to five nuggets, has about 8 gm fat (1 gm fat equals 9 calories), even before they are fried, after which the fat content goes through the roof. It is best to keep calories from fat less than 25 per cent of the total calories (so, in a day, for an average person, not more than 400 calories must come from fat), and this does not allow much room for ready-to-fry treats.
Hidden Calories: For a sedentary worker, the daily requirement is around 1,600 calories for a woman and 2,000 calories for a man. So make your calculations accordingly. For example, if the kebabs or chicken nuggets you wolf down at one time are giving you upwards of 1,000 calories — about eight-10 nuggets, taking into consideration calories from the fat used for frying — you need to be careful.
Sugar: Be careful of the terminology — ‘no added sugar’ — in most packaged juices. This usually means that the food has not had any sugar added to it, but it does not mean that it contains no sugar absolutely. It may contain natural sugar (fruits have it in the form of fructose). Most juices have about 30 gm-plus natural sugar in a 250 ml glass.
Fibre: Juices have close to none — less than 3 gm of fibre in a 250 ml serving. On the other hand, just one fruit (say, an apple) will give you the same amount of fibre with far fewer calories. Low fibre is bad for the gut.
Wafers and chips
Serving size: A serving size isn’t relevant here, since hardly anyone stops at three-four chips. So, how much you end up eating may actually be double, triple or even more of the number at the back.
Trans fats: They mention zero trans fats, but check the ingredients list closely and you will find hydrogenated fats, which have trans fats as a component.
Sodium: Their sodium content is universally high.
Cookies and biscuits
Serving size: If you stick to the serving size (two-three biscuits) you will have controlled your calorie intake (around 100 calories), but if you eat the eight to 10-biscuit packet at one go, then it contains upward of 450 calories for most cookies (cream or not). That’s about one-fourth to one-fifth of the daily calorie requirement for most sedentary people.
Sugar: Most cookies tend to be very high in sugar, usually upward of 20 gm per 100 gm, often making up to about a third of the ingredients’ weight. That’s a lot of empty calories.
Instant noodles and soups
Fat content: While soups made from scratch are typically low in fat, instant noodles are not, often hiding more than 10 gm per serving. That’s 90 calories just from fat. So try to pick products with not more than 4-5 gm total fat.
Sodium: Sodium refers to the salt content, and its daily intake ideally should not be more than 2,400 mg. While most instant noodles packets don’t mention the total salt content, if you look at the list of ingredients, sodium is mentioned in the third place (which means it is the third-highest componenty in quantity). It is mentioned in the ingredients list of the tastemaker too, which only adds up to a lot. Instant soups almost always tend to be high in salt — usually above 5,000 mg for a 100 gm packet — so if you have about half a packet at a time (about 25 gm), you’ll consume more than half your daily requirement of sodium. Opt for packaging labelled ‘low sodium’, which have less than 140 mg per serving.
With inputs from Hetal Pandya, head nutritionist, Fortis Hospital, Mulund, Mumbai