Nutrition Meets Food Science

Conversation With a Food Label

At a time, when fake news cleverly mimics facts to create a false narrative, your only trustworthy source is the food label. It is controlled by regulations; facts are verifiable and anything false or misleading is punishable. No other media is so strictly controlled. Labels, however, do not speak a consumer’s language.  They speak “bureaucratese”. When a label is defective, they are said to be mislabelled, misleading or misbranded. Such words keep us in awe of the law more than they inform us. But if you ask the right questions a conversation with the label may follow.  Try it.

How did the food get its name?  Most food names are common or customary: the name has been in use for a long time. Everyone knows what a biscuit, bread, juice, coffee, tea or milk is.  The name may have an added description, like wholewheat bread, salted peanuts or just soy milk, to get you interested. The name so described would be misbranded if the bread is not made of whole wheat flour, and the peanuts are unsalted. But if you should ask for Marie or Bourbon biscuits, tonic or barley water, the shopkeeper may enquire which brand because they are now trade names; much like butter and jam. You may also learn of their processing: masala chips, smoked paprika, sweetened condensed milk, or frozen peas. You are being well informed.

Some have longer names like “baked beans in tomato sauce” and “sweet corn cream style”: they are dishes by themselves. Many names, like mayonnaise, margarine, muesli or vermicelli sounded ‘foreign’ when introduced, but not anymore. So, what does this tell you? Those who visit markets regularly or check out new product introductions are most knowledgeable about what’s in the package. If they have doubts, they have a way of finding out. Misunderstanding is not the same as misleading. Whether common, traded, fanciful or foreign, food names are unlikely to mislead. If you still have doubts … read more.

What’s in a name? Unlike what Shakespeare said, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”: the saying, with due apologies to the great poet is unacceptable in food regulations.   Foods cannot be called by any other name or by a name that belongs to another.  If you do so it’s called misbranding and a punishable offence. Even so, you can tell if the name suits the food by its composition, look, feel, presentation and sensory attributes.

The first 3-4 ingredients form virtually 95% of the product. With wheat flour, fat, sugar, and milk in the right proportions, a simple roti, bread, bun, biscuit or cake can be made. Change wheat flour to rice or another cereal you could get pancakes, crepes, or dosa. The remaining is just flavouring ingredients salt, spice and food additives.

Water, with fruit or vegetable pulp or paste, sugar, salt and spice will make ‘flowy products’ like juice, sauce or chutney.  But juice is different from a beverage, drink or nectar; that’s because each name has a standard. While they all are great thirst quenchers; remember Shakespeare’s quote does not work with food names. Do food names never mislead? They can … read more.

When ingredients appear in the name:  If a product emphasizes valuable ingredients in the name to attract consumers, it must tell you how much is in the food.  So, make your choice, when brand A “Butter cookie” has 2% butter and brand B has 8%. However, not every ingredient appearing in the name is considered as emphasized. Potato chips, and rice crackers being sole ingredients are unlikely to affect a consumer’s purchase decision. You cannot have more potato or rice than is necessary to make the product.  A breakfast cereal package is allowed a picture of a bowl with fruits and nuts as a serving suggestion (specifically declared), though it may not contain them.   And garlic bread does not have to declare the percentage of garlic as it is used for flavouring purposes and in small quantities. Can’t have more flavour than required.

Salt and sugar may be hiding in plain sight: A consumer may not know that high fructose corn syrup, honey, molasses, maple syrup, and lactose appearing in the ingredient list are sources of sugar. They need not worry as the amount of all added sugars is in the nutrition table.  Watch out for the word sodium in sodium chloride (common salt), monosodium glutamate (MSG) or sodium benzoate (preservative).

Food additives contribute much lesser amounts of sodium than salt. But don’t be deceived by that salty taste. Many foods don’t taste salty, like bread, rice, rotis etc., but eaten in much larger quantities every day may contribute to more salt intake than saltier foods (pickle, soy sauce or papad).

Are you updated: India requires two dates on a package; a manufacturing date and an expiry or use-by date. The law requires that a food product should not be distributed nor sold after the expiry date. So, don’t buy one.  Earlier there was another date “best before date’ during which a consumer could get food that retains its best quality characteristics and sensory qualities.

What about my concerns: Now, everyone would like to see jams spread, sauces flow, jellies wobble, cakes spongy, ice cream smooth and yummy and pickles preserved. These product attributes come from the use of food additives. Only additives determined safe for food use by WHO/FAO are added within prescribed limits set by Codex or country regulators.  So, when the label says ‘contains no additives or preservatives’, it means the product may not require it. Absence makes some wonder and others fonder for such claims. You will notice that additives being the lowest amounts appear at the bottom of the ingredient list.

Finally, for consumers sensitive or allergic to certain foods, their ingredients or components are alerted separately – just below the ingredients panel – with “contains nuts” or fish or gluten, if these are added. Even those that may escape attention like lecithin are declared as soy, or whey protein is declared as milk and easily recognized.

Labels give you bits of information that look like a jigsaw but put them together once and you will always have the true picture. And if you don’t see the FSSAI logo and license number, be safe, don’t buy.


Dr. Joseph Lewis

Chairman- Regulatory Affairs Committee, PFNDAI

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