What catches your eye when you travel down those long neon-lit aisles in supermarkets, with rows on rows of vibrantly packaged cartons, tins, bottles, and pouches? Do those alluring promises of ‘Rich Belgian Chocolate Cream,’ or ‘Buy One, Get One Free!’ or perhaps even ‘Low-Fat Goodness!’ (what many consumers seem to look for these days) play mind games to convince you? Do you base your final shopping decisions on what you read on the front of those cartons, and look no further? Then, my friend, you’re looking at all the wrong places to take one of the most crucial decisions of your life – Your HEALTH!
To learn the truth behind what exactly is inside those boxes, you don’t need to search for it ‘out there,’ but just need to turn the carton around. You will see a little black and white label with lots of numerical values and percentages, which may look not only a whole less interesting, but a whole lot complicated too. That, is the ‘Nutritional Facts Information Label,’ or, simply put, the Food Label. And that is the real eye-opener to good health. Here’s a simple way of learning how to read the enigmatic Food Label.
What are Food Labels?
Food Labels are mandatory nutritional information that needs to be displayed on packaged and processed foods that are sold in the supermarkets. They appear as a rectangular box in black and white, usually at the back of the carton, and are generally labeled ‘Nutritional Facts.’
What do Food Labels tell you?
Very simply, they tell you what macro and micronutrients are present in those foods you’re buying, and in how much quantities. The labels give information regarding the calorie content, amount of fats, carbohydrates, sugars, protein, salt, and various vitamins and minerals as may be present in the food. May include fiber content too (especially if there is a claim made around it)
Are there laws around this?
Yes. Every country has its own food safety and labeling regulations. For instance, in the U.S., the laws are laid down and followed by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and in India, by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). These statutory bodies have made it mandatory for all packaged and processed goods to contain the nutritional information label, and to validate any health, nutrition, and risk reducing claims that may be made by the manufacturer. (Eg., “reduced sugar,” or “low-fat,” or “fortified with Calcium,” etc.)
How do we decode the Food Label?
Let’s follow a step by step process to understand the Food Label.
- Start with the top: Serving Size and Number of Serving –
- This represents the average portion size that is recommended also as the ideal portion size. And the number of servings tells you how many such portions are there in the box. For instance, if the serving size is 150 gms, and the box contains 4 portions, then the net weight of the contents should be around 600 gms. And eating the entire box would give you 4 times the nutrition value (calories) represented by the food label.
- Note that sometimes there is no serving size mentioned, but instead, the nutritional information of 100 gms of the product is given. You have to know how many grams of the product you’re looking to consume in your single serving, in order to determine exactly how many calories you’d be taking in per serving.
- Total Calories – This doesn’t require an explanation. It tells you how many calories are contained in a single serving (of the size mentioned) of the particular food product. Often, there is a subsection that mentions how many calories come from fat alone. All calories do not come from fat. If you’re on a low carb diet, here is where you must look.
- Macros and micros – This is the list of the macronutrients and micronutrients contained in one serving of the food product. Again, what is important is to remember to multiply these values with the total number of servings in the box, to arrive at the net nutrient values. In this section, the general recommendation is to limit the items in the first section (Saturated fats, added sugars, sodium) and increase the intake of items in the latter section (Vitamins, Minerals, and fiber).
- Added Sugars – The label mentions the total sugars in the food product. However, this includes naturally occurring sugars (in fruit and milk components) as well as added ones. To know if there are added sugars, move to the ingredients list. The following are indicators of added sugars: ‘high fructose corn syrup,’ ‘maltodextrin,’ ‘corn syrup,’ ‘maple syrup,’ ‘fruit juice concentrate,’ and ‘honey,’ to name a few. Steer clear of products where these are the first ingredients in the ingredient list.
- % Daily Value – The % Daily Value is basically the amount of a certain nutrient (in percentage) present in the food product, as compared to the total daily requirement of that nutrient in an average individual with a 2000 calorie diet. Simply put, if the %DV of Fat is 5%, that means that a single serving of the food product gives you 5% of the total amount of fat needed by an average person consuming 2000 calories in a single day.
The Daily Value (DV) is different from the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) in that the RDA represents the recommended nutrient intake that varies across different genders and ages, while the DV is a single value for each nutrient that was selected by the FDA as representing the average healthy individual’s dietary requirement for that nutrient. This was done for the sake of uniformity – therefore the assumption of a 2000 calorie average has been accepted worldwide as the benchmark.
However, what that means is that you must keep in mind your own average daily calorie requirement, which may be more or less than 2000. In addition, for individual nutrients like Sodium, or Fat, or some vitamins, a person may need to consume greater or lesser than the 100% Daily Value due to special dietary needs. That will also call for a recalibration of how much nutrient value we are looking to get from one serving of the food product. Everyone’s requirement is different, so the Daily Value is to be used only as a benchmark that represents the average.
Here is an image of the Food Label that FDA has released for educational purposes, and will help understand the components at a glance:
Image Credits: FDA website- https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm114155.htm
Substantiating Claims – If the food carton makes a claim relating to health or nutritional value, or even about its ability to combat a certain health risk, the nutritional label must, by law, provide justification for such claims. Most common claims include “Source of fiber,’ ‘light,’ ‘low-calorie,’ ‘low-sodium,’ and so on. Typically ‘low-fat’ implies less than 3 gms of fat in every serving/portion that the food label refers to, and ‘low-calorie’ implies around 25% less calories than the ‘full-calorie’ counterpart. Examples of health claims include ‘Fortified with calcium,’ ‘Added Vitamins,’ and so on.
In addition to the label itself, a few more facts about the food product can be ascertained using the following:
- Ingredient List – This is another important section that must be simultaneously consulted with the Food Label itself. The ingredients list is arranged in the order of decreasing composition by weight (or volume), that is to say, if the list contains “Refined Flour, Corn Syrup, Lactose,” it means that the maximum part of the product is refined flour, followed by corn syrup (added sugars), and then lactose (further added sugars). Not the healthiest choice!
- Veg/Non-Veg Symbols – The green dot in a green box indicates a vegetarian food product, while the brown dot in a brown box indicates a non-vegetarian product. As per FSSAI rules in India, the Veg/Non-Veg symbol needs to be displayed on all processed and packaged food items.
- Information regarding Food Additives, Preservatives, Colours – According to FSSAI regulations, this information is also to be mandatorily shown along with the Nutritional Information Label. Needless to say, foods that contain high amounts of additives and artificial flavorings should be avoided at all costs.
Endnote: Change begins with looking beyond fake promises on fancy box fronts. Start looking at the right places to learn the truth. But while food labels are really helpful in understanding nutrition and health better, not everything we buy and eat comes with labels (eg, those sold loose in kiranas etc). So, educating ourselves about the calorie content of various food items is the best way to manage our health.
Author Credits – Bhavani Rajesh