The Nutrition Facts label is the information found on most packaged foods, which can simplify the whole concept of healthy eating. It tracks fat, sugar, sodium, fibre, etc to help us make an informed decision while purchasing any product. Each country has its own labelling standards and requirements, but, for the most part, they all include the standard information.
Although such labelling is an established practice in many countries, it is relatively new in India and requires better regulations and clarity for companies. Most established companies do include at least basic information for packaged foods they sell in India, so that’s better. However, as consumers, we still need to be careful not to get carried away by so many of misleading claims (labelling has also become a part of advertising!). Learning to read and understand these labels can help you make healthier choices. Here are some tips for making the most of the information on the Nutrition Facts label:
The Fine Print: Firstly when you visit a supermarket, don’t forget to take your glasses (I usually use the magnifying app in my phone). The fine print on a nutrition label is the most important content which is printed but not easily legible. It could be the ingredient list, allergens or complex calorie calculations. Whatever it may be, they don’t want you to read it but it is the content which cannot be ignored.
The Front Page: What is written on the cover of the box is what the manufacturer wants you to read : ‘Low Calories’ or ‘No Sugar’ or ‘Fat-Free’ or ‘Diet’. All printed in big, bold, colourful lettering. Most of the time the product claims may be exaggerated, misleading and distracting and they only tell half the story. In reality, labels are a part of marketing strategy planned for attracting, promoting and motivating the consumer to buy. The back of the packaging can conflict the health claim made on the front of it. So the ‘Low Fat’ claim on the front doesn’t necessarily mean low fat; it could just mean a bit less fat than the version that doesn’t make such a claim. Don’t stop at the cover, flip the package around and read the fine print.
Marketing Gimmick: The front page is the selling point for any product. If you are unaware of nutrition basics then the marketing ploy might just dupe you. The claims printed are always true in the strict sense of the word, but are not relevant for purchase. For instance, while buying oil don’t get fascinated with ‘Zero Cholesterol’ because all vegetable oils are naturally zero cholesterol. Cholesterol is an ingredient to watch for in foods with animal source (like meat, fish, eggs, dairy and animal based oils). Similarly, a product may be ‘Sugar Free’ but the pure sugar is simply replaced with honey or glucose (and when it comes down to it, they’re all really the same thing,).
The Table: The nutrition facts table has lots of confusing numbers with complicated calculations that will give you flashbacks to math class in school. When you begin reading it, make sure you know what you are looking for. While buying pasta you cannot check the protein content (because it is a carbohydrate rich food) and if you are buying milk check for the fats or added sugars, not fibre (because milk has zero fibre). Many times you may buy a product with a real claim but unknowingly overlook the undesirable ingredients. So ‘Fat Free Yoghurt’ may indeed be fat-free, but it’s also probably full of sugar. Not as healthy as you thought, right?
Serving Sizes: This is this number mentioned at the top which is the baseline for all calculations printed on the rest of the table. But this is also one of the biggest marketing tricks that mislead the consumer. Let’s say you’re buying chips. You pick up the 200 gram package and see that it says ‘only’ 20 grams of fat. Sounds too good to be true? It probably is. Because the manufacturers very conveniently made the serving size 50 grams – which is about the number of chips that will fit in a coffee mug. That’s completely unrealistic, because almost no one stops at just a handful! You’re going to wolf down the entire packet happily assuming you’ve only consumed 20 grams of fat, when in reality it’s 80. Remember to always multiply the serving size of fat / sugar / carbs etc by the servings per container to know how much of these nutrients are there in the entire packet.
Nutrients: This includes the macronutrients carbohydrate, protein and fats and micronutrients of vitamins and minerals. Identify these nutrients on the label to make healthy food choices. Let fats and sugars be minimal but don’t forget what you are actually looking for. If you are buying fruit juices look out for good quantity of fibre, vitamins, minerals and no added sugar.
Ingredient list: The ingredients in a product are mentioned in order of proportions. As you descend the list, the quantity of ingredients keeps reducing. Sometimes, products are sold using an essential ingredient added. For example, high fibre bread ‘enhanced with flaxseed.’ It is tempting to buy a product with omega rich flaxseeds, but if you read the ingredient list and flaxseed is mentioned towards the end of it, you may as well buy bread without it. It would have been added in negligible amounts (or in proportions appropriate for feeding ants). Always remember, the first three ingredients are what you are largely consuming. European-style labelling does a better job with this, because it often includes percentages (eg: packaged butter that says 90% fat, etc).
Apart from the price, date of manufacturing and expiration make a habit to read the nutrition label. Match the serving sizes while comparing products to choose the better one. Remember to check the product servings and calculate nutrients based on how much you will consume. Don’t get carried away with seller’s gimmicks.
Don’t get fixated with the nutrition table. The information is a guideline to help you make healthier choices. Brush up on your basics, and, if confused, take help from an expert. The more practice you get reading food labels, the better you can become in using them as a tool to plan your healthy, balanced diet. And it’s rather easy, once you get into the habit.