Nutrition Meets Food Science

Understanding Food Labels to Make Healthier Choices

Food labels are an important source of information for the consumer. The information contained in the labels gives the consumer an insight into the ingredients of the product, its nutritional composition, its health benefits, and other relevant information. Food labels are often misunderstood by the consumer. This leads to a lack of trust in the product. For instance, a consumer may not want to buy a product if the product label does not provide the information, they are looking for. This may lead to a loss of trust in the product.

Food labelling is a mandatory requirement by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on most packaged foods and beverages. FSSAI has laid down clear and mandatory guidelines on the labelling of food, that enable the consumer to get the information in an easy and understandable manner. The labelling is done in such a way that the consumer does not have to put in a lot of effort to understand the information. Therefore, it is important to understand some common terms used on food labels like best before, use by or expiry dates, net weight, nutrition facts, ingredients, allergens, additives, manufacturing details, instructions for use, health claims, etc. 

There is often confusion between best before, use by and expiry dates. “Best before” date means that after this date, the food can be completely safe to eat, but the quality may be affected. Whereas, “Use by” or “expiry” means the date indicates the end of the estimated period under specified storage conditions after which the product may not remain safe for consumption.  

The need for nutrition labelling:

It helps the consumer to make an informed choice about the product, by providing a detailed breakdown of the ingredients of the product. The consumer can get an idea about the nutrition of the product, the health benefits as well as the serving size of the product along with the servings per container. The nutrition facts help guide consumers with common health concerns, such as weight control, diabetes and high blood pressure, and those following special diets. To serve this purpose, the label shows calories, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, proteins and certain vitamins and minerals. 

Nutrition labels are often displayed as a panel or grid on the back or side of packaging and are usually divided into three parts containing nutrition facts panel, ingredients and allergen statements. The nutrition facts panel displays the amounts of all nutrients like calories and fats along with % daily values, it also contains the serving size and the servings per container. The ingredients panel contains the list of ingredients in descending order of their concentration or amounts in the product. The allergen statements panel gives the list of ingredients that are known to cause an allergic reaction in people with a known allergy.

Reading nutrition labels:

  1. Start by taking a look at the serving size and the servings per package. The nutrition information is usually mentioned based on one serving or 100 grams or 100 ml and the servings per package may be more than one serving. This serving size depicts the amount that people usually eat.
  2. Energy/ Calories- You can look at the number of servings you are consuming, if the packet has four servings and you eat the entire packet, you have eaten four times the calories and other nutrients. The number of servings determines the number of calories you eat. Eating too many calories is linked to weight gain and obesity.
  3. Fat and sodium- To help reduce the risk of heart diseases, select foods that have lower saturated fats and trans fats. Fat-free does not mean calorie-free. Items low in fat may have as many calories as full-fat items, compare the labels for both to check the calorie content. The daily intake of sodium should be less than 2000 mg (approx. 5g of salt). Select foods that are low in sodium to prevent the risk of developing high blood pressure. 
  4. Total Carbohydrates- Check for Fibers and Sugars, especially added sugars. Total sugars are the ones that are naturally present in foods like fruits and milk as well as added sugars in the product, whereas the added sugars are added during the processing of foods like sucrose, dextrose, table sugar, sugar syrups, etc.
  5. Proteins, vitamins and minerals: Get enough of these nutrients to increase immunity and lower the risk of non-communicable diseases like diabetes.
  6. % Daily value (%DV): It is the percentage of the Daily Value for each nutrient in a serving of the food. It is based on a 2000-calorie diet. If a nutrient’s DV is listed as 20% then it meets 20% of the total amount of that nutrient you need per day. This is a helpful way to check whether the food is high or low in a nutrient value. A DV of 5% or less means the food item is low in that nutrient and 20% or more means it is high in that nutrient. 

Image Source: Wikipedia

Be aware of Misleading food labels:

There are a number of misleading food labels, carefully look at the ingredients, labels may claim to contain no artificial sweeteners, additives, or preservatives or claim to be healthy; labels may have claimed to be low in fat, but are high in sodium or sugar. Claims like “Whole grain”, Whole grains have more fibre but those if they have been refined, the processing removes the healthiest parts of the grain. Some breads have brown colour, but that may not mean that they are made from whole grains, sometimes they have caramel colouring. 

References:

Gazette Notification F. No. 1-94/FSSAI/SP (Labelling)/2014 (pt-2) dated 17.11.2020 on the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020

https://eatrightindia.gov.in/how-to-read-label.jsp

https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label

Nutrition Requirements for Indians, ICMR-NIN, 2020.

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Shreya Shah

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