Understanding food labels

The awareness about the importance of healthy eating is rapidly growing all over the world. So, the range of products catering to this growing demand is also increasing. But some of these products may not be quite as healthy as they appear to be.

‘Reduced fat’ or ‘50% less calories’ as the label reads may not be good enough for persons on low fat or low calorie diet. For example, mayonnaise is extremely high in cholesterol from the egg yolks and calories from the oil. So, a 50% reduction though a safer option may still be unsafe for people who are advised to cut down on fat. So, choose a brand, which is more specific and mentions the fat content; like 8% fat cheese or 0.5% fat yogurt.

In India the label on breads is often misleading. ‘Brown bread’ need not be whole wheat bread. If a regular bread is just colored brown with the addition of caramel syrup or food color it can pass as brown bread without offending the food regulations. Similarly, ‘attaa need not mean whole wheat flour, though the word is commonly used to distinguish maida from whole wheat flour. Legally ‘atta’ can be any four: wheat, maida, maize, rice etc. Only if the label is marked as whole wheat bread, you can be sure of what it says. Also, if you are looking for healthy bread, read the ingredients listed on the cover. The ingredients are listed in the decreasing proportion. For example if the bread has many grains with maida, and the ingredients are listed as maida, ragi, whole wheat, Soya etc, the proportion of maida is of the highest in the bread. If the bread has whole wheat in the highest proportion then it will feature first in the list. The word ‘enriched’ is honest as it claims only to have added some extra nutrients to a regular product.

This trend of not revealing the whole truth also extends to some restaurant menus offering healthy or lighter options. A restaurant I visited recently had on its menu a salad with eggless mayonnaise dressing. Most people will assume that the dressing is low in cholesterol and calories. When I specifically asked about the contents of the dressing I was informed that it had high fat cream besides other ingredients.

Some snacks are advertised as ‘Baked, not fried’. This leads one to believe that it is low in fat. But, all baked products may not be low in fat. In fact, most baked products are high in margarine, often listed as hydrogenated vegetable oil, which is the worst offender among all fats. So, read the ingredient list before buying such a product.

Articles about the health benefits of certain ingredients may sometimes mislead people though not intentionally. For example, honey is credited with many health benefits. While writing about these, the article may not mention that gram to gram, it has the same calories as sugar. It is true that honey has other nutrients, which make it a better option than sugar. But, it does add to the calorie intake in our diet, so it should be consumed in small quantities. The same principal applies to dates, figs, almonds, walnuts, olive oil etc. They certainly have many health benefits. But they are also high in calories.

So, try to get as much information as you can before you accept a product as healthy and moderate the quantities of food, which are good for health but high in calories.

Text: Chandri Bhat

Also read:
Dieters misled by food names end up eating unhealthy foods

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