Buy healthy food by reading the nutrition labels

You can eat healthy food only if you buy healthy food! But for us Indians, it is not very easy! This is partly

There has been very little regulation of food industry till recent past, therefore food manufacturers did not provide relevant information. But the situation is changing fast! FSSAI has put in place guidelines for food makers detailing the  information they need to provide in food nutrition labels

It is up to us consumers to use this information now!

What is available on food nutrition labels in India and how to make use of this information?

Ingredient list can tell you very useful things if you know how to read it:

Manufacturers list the ingredients in descending order of % of total weight or volume. Also, the names of some ingredients are important to know . Thus looking at the ingredient list, you can check whether the ‘healthy’ claim  is true or false:

  • If a product, for example, brown bread, is claiming to be ‘whole grain‘, look at the ingredient list: ‘whole wheat flour’ or ‘atta’ should be listed as first ingredient instead of just ‘wheat flour’, which means ‘maida’
  • Products having oil as first or second ingredient are likely to have too much oil. No always easy to guess, for example, instant noodles
  • Is there‘Trans fat’ containing oil in their product: the ingredient list have  ‘hydrogenated/ partially hydrogenated vegetable oil’ or ‘shortening’
  • Are there added sugars (there is a long list of  added sugars beyond table sugar). Some products may claim to be ‘sugar free’ but in fact have added sugars other than table sugar (sucrose) in big quantities

Nutritional information  is the next place to look at:

  • FSSAI mandates the food manufacturers to declare how much a 100 gram serving of given food contains ( in grams) of
    • Calories
    • Carbohydrates, sugar listed separately
    • Fats
    • Proteins
    • Any other nutrient for which a nutrition or health claim is made
  • BUt manufacturers do not have to give break up of fats (saturated, mono and poly unsaturated fats, cholesterol etc.. But that information is very important for people with heart disease or diabetes. Therefore looking at ingredient list also is important. IF it lists animal fats (ghee, butter) the food item will have high saturated fats and cholesterol. Similarly, PHVO or hydrogenated vegetable oils will have trans fats
  • Products making claims on vitamins or minerals, will mention the quantity of these nutrients in grams/mgs in 100 grams of the food item. But the best way to know, is to give this data as % of total daily value (RDA or DV), but this information is often missing!

  International guidelines such as the US ones, mandate that ” a ‘good source’ or ‘high quality source’ claim may be  made when a food contains 10-19%or > 20% of the RDI or DRV respectively. So, try to look at the ‘rich source’ claims with this lens before buying!

For snacks etc. serving size is most important to stick to:

This information is optional, so it may or may not be there on the food label.  But when it is there, this is the most crucial information  for ‘healthy snacking’. A good thumb rule will be to make mental note of serving sizes, such that

  • For snacks: a serving size should give nearly 100 calories, calculate how many such servings are there in the pack and eat accordingly
  • For meals: a serving size should give nearly 350-500 calories

Some special claims have been frowned upon by FSSAI, beware of these:

  • The package, label or the advertisement of edible oils and fats should not use the expressions “Super-Refined”, “Extra-Refined”, “Micro-Refined”, “Double-Refined”, Ultra-Refined”, “Anti-Cholesterol”, “Cholesterol Fighter”, “Soothing to Heart”, “Cholesterol Friendly”, “Saturated Fat Free” . Because these expressions are an exaggeration/misrepresentation of  quality of the product. In fact, ALL vegetable oils are cholesterol free! Similarly cold pressed oil is superior to refined oils, so double refined etc. are not better oils

  • Any food product which is likely to give a false impression to the consumer that the product contains fruit (but does not contain the specified amount of fruit), shall be clearly marked on the label as ‘ADDED (NAME OF THE FRUIT) FLAVOUR’. IN fact many ‘fruit juices’ such as Real or Tropicana have one line which says ‘fruit juice based drink’ on the packet. These are laden with sugar! Only REal Active and Tropicana 100% are pure fruit juices

This information should help you do your food shopping in a healthy way. Once you practice it, you and your family will be eating much healthier!

CHECK OUT: Our references for recommendations on diet