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Mind what you eat: decoding labels

Cool packaging often hides the unhealthy truth within. So read between the lines. Don't get carried away with screaming words like 'sugar free' and 'cholesterol free' and 'diet', writes Shikha Sharma.

brunch Updated: Jul 12, 2014 17:10 IST
Shikha Sharma
Shikha Sharma
Hindustan Times
Shikha Sharma,Food Labels,Sugar free

You can’t avoid the ready-to-eat foods that overflow from the aisles of today’s grocery shops. They’re so tempting, screaming words like ‘sugar free’ and ‘cholesterol free’ and ‘diet’. But do you really understand the labelling? Most people don’t, and that can affect their health. Our quick guide may help clear things up.

Misleading Descriptions

Zero Cholesterol

When we see a food package labelled zero cholesterol, we misinterpret it as zero fat. But that can be far from true. Technically and legally, the package could have tons of oil, but still no cholesterol. How? Because olive oil and sunflower oil have zero cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat found in animals and humans, but not in plants. But the oils still have fats.

Zero Sugar

The moment you see these words, you think, ‘diet food’, right? Wrong. Chocolate could contain saccharine or aspartame and therefore be zero sugar, but there is fat in the butter and the cocoa. And even if it is offered as a diet food, if you eat it in large quantities, you’ll continue to put on weight.

Diet and Zero Calorie

We see these labels on fizzy drinks and think we can go ahead and guzzle them without guilt. But actually, these products are loaded with salt, aspartame and preservatives and harmful chemicals that cause bloating rather than weight loss.

How to Read Food Labels

Serving Size

Food manufacturers can be tricky with serving sizes: they differ on each food label and may not equal the serving size you normally eat. So if you eat twice the serving listed on the label, you will need to double all the numbers in the nutritional facts section.

Trans Fat

Trans fats are bad for your heart. So check how much of it is present in the product. Ideally, it should be zero or minuscule. Fats that are good for you are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3.Fats that are not so good are saturated fats and trans fats. Look out for words like ‘hydrogenated oils’ on the ingredient list. These are trans fats too.


This will tell you how much cholesterol you get from eating one serving of the food. HDL is ‘good’ cholesterol and LDL is ‘bad’ cholesterol. As before, don’t misinterpret zero cholesterol as zero fat.


We need just 10 to 20gm of sodium a day. But canned foods (even ones that don’t taste too salty) and savouries have more sodium than you need.


Usually, when a packet says ‘carbs’, what it means is sugar. You don’t need energy from sugar, you need it from whole grain. One teaspoon of sugar is 4gms. And "no sugar added" does not mean that the product is calorie or carbohydrate free or even sugar free (it could have too much natural sugar, as in a fruit juice, which could still do damage to your body).

Photos: Shutterstock, Thinkstock

From HT Brunch, July 13
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First Published: Jul 11, 2014 18:52 IST