Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nutrition Labels in Processed Foods - The Facts

     It's been quite a while since i posted - the usual excuses but I got caught up doing some research for this topic so I thought, why not?
I’m writing this so that you can now practice choosing packaged foods based on their nutrition labels. Let me first say that ideally, you’d be rarely buying foods that come in a package. The benefit of living in India is that we have so much fresh food available to us. And what doesn’t come fresh like whole wheat flour, brown rice, dals and legumes (sprouts can be made at home), etc, though these may come in a plastic packet, counts as unprocessed foods and are pretty standard in their nutrient content.

So, how do you read nutrition labels?

The myth: Ingredients lists on food products are designed to inform consumers about what's contained in the product. 

The reality: Ingredients lists are used by food manufacturers to deceive consumers and trick them into thinking products are healthier (or of better quality) than they really are.

     Before reading anything else, first look at the 'Ingredients' on the package. You'd want to avoid picking up anything that contains:

- Sugar as a major ingredient
- Sugar substitutes such as mannitol, xylitol, high fructose corn syrup (fortunately, the last is not commonly found in Indian processed foods) and artificial sweeteners like aspartame
- More than 1g of Saturated Fat per serving
- More than 1g of Cholesterol
- More than 2 g of Fat totally per serving
- (Partially) Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil or chemically called Trans Fat, Monosodium Glutamate,Sodium nitrate or nitrite, Artificial colours and flavours.
- You would also want to be wary of products containing MSG or salt if you have high blood pressure

On the Nutrition Label:

Serving size: This will tell you how the manufacturer has measured the amount of nutrients in pre-measured servings. Usually manufacturers have a standard serving size which makes it easier to compare quantity. For example, most labels will have cups or pieces, and that is followed by the metric amount in grams. It will also tell you how many servings there are in the box.             By this info you can also judge whether the serving size is either more or less than the quantity you would eat – For example, a small packet of marie biscuits may be divided into 3 portions but suppose you eat the entire quantity? You should do some quick mental math. If you consume the whole packet, you’ve had several times the amount written on the food label.

Calories: You might find a label that gives all the nutrient values as percentage of daily requirement which is actually inaccurate for you to follow since the total calories they've calculated for is mostly different than your requirement. In this case, ALL nutrient values would differ.

Protein: You require approx 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight per day, so when choosing an item, look at different brands to see which has the higher protein content per serving. You will see that snack foods and fried stuff like chips have no significant quantity of protein so take the hint and avoid these.

Carbohydrates: can be divided into simple and complex – and this classification should be there on food labels as well – always choose those which have higher amount of complex carbs- such as whole wheat, ragi, oats, etc. If simple carbs are higher, it could also mean that this product has a high amount of sugar (in which case – avoid it).

Fat: the most important fact you will see. Fats are classified into MUFA, PUFA, SFA (or saturated), cholesterol and Trans Fatty Acids (trans fats). Cholesterol and SFA should ideally all below 1g per serving. If it is higher, choose a different brand and don’t compromise on this as these types are very unhealthy and in fact damaging to the body. Trans Fat should be avoided always -don't pick up any food which contains this. The Total Fat per serving should be less than 2 g if you’re committed to making healthy choices.

Vitamins and minerals: Again on the label, they use percentage of daily value to communicate this. Don’t choose a product by looking at this part of the label as you’ll any way get enough vitamins and minerals by eating fresh food. 

     Rarely, the percentage daily values of iron, calcium, vitamin A,C or D of a product could be more than 20 - 30 %, be wary - the food probably has been fortified with these nutrients - it's almost impossible for a processed food to naturally contain that amount of micro nutrients. Make a choice whether you want to consume nutrients in their natural packaging as a fruit, veggie, milk, etc OR eat this synthetic form. 

     Point to consider - eating such highly fortified foods on a regular basis might cause toxicity. On the other hand, it’s hard to go wrong with natural foods.
Fiber: Only if there is 3 g or more of fiber per serving, is the food product reasonably high in fiber. And foods that generally claim they're high in fiber tend also to be high in fat and sugar (for palatability).

Health Claims: What is laughable is sunflower oil manufacturers claiming their product has zero cholesterol – ANY product which is of vegetable origin will NOT contain cholesterol in the first place. Vegetable Oils are converted to cholesterol only after we ingest them.

     Now manufacturers label their product as Low fat, Zero Trans Fat, No added sugar (but check to see if High Fructose corn syrup or other artificial sweeteners are used). You’ll have to research and find out for yourself whether these are genuinely healthier food choices or not.

     Oh and food manufacturers lie! 'Natural ingredients' can mean that only 60% of that ingredient is from a natural source. There are many similar claims that mislead.

     Hope this info helps. You can even use it to gauge the health value of new so called 'Health Foods' now available on store shelves.
A couple of links which have additional info and tips:
Ah, to be blogging again :)

An edited version of this post appeared as an article in the June 2012 issue of 'Parent Circle', a parenting magazine published in Chennai...