Understanding Food Nutrition Labels: How To Read Them Correctly
How many of us actually pay attention to labels when shopping for groceries and other food items? Typically we scan the brand, price and if we have an extra second, we glance at the expiry date. The nutrition sticker, however, usually goes unnoticed.
All foods have nutrition stickers on them, some detailed, others basic but more often than not we skip looking at them. Or even if we do, the jargon confuses most of us.
But the fact is that, so many of us buy and eat foods out of packet and cans these days that it is absolutely essential to get ‘Label Wise’ - to be able to compare products more easily, choose better foods according to their nutritional value. This is also particularly helpful when one has to follow a special diet like say have low sodium foods (to prevent hypertension) or have a high fibre diet (to say treat constipation). Reading labels correctly is an excellent skill that adds tremendously to a healthy lifestyle.
So what should you look out for? What do all those names and numbers mean? Here’s a basic primer.
1. Serving Size
A serving size is not what fills up the packet. Always check the serving size mentioned on the packing as this will tell you the amount to eat, and the amount of calories and other nutrients the food will give you for that serving size.
For example if serving size mentioned is say 2 biscuits but you have 4, you will need to double the counts of everything right away. Most packaged foods contain multiple servings, and often the serving sizes mentioned are really small (who has 3-4 chips really!), so how much you end up eating may actually be double or triple of those numbers mentioned at the back.
Also Read : Food Labels Promote Healthier Choices: Study
We all need to monitor our intake; the simple principal is that amount that we eat in a day should be equal to or lower than the amount we burn off. Usually for a sedentary worker it is around 1600 calories for a woman and around 2000 calories for a man. So make your calculations accordingly.
For example if one serving of the lasagna that you are eyeing is giving you upwards of 1000 calories, maybe you need to rethink; after all managing the rest of the day’s meals in the leftover calories from your quota will not be practical.
For example if you have 2-3 biscuits you’ll have around 100 calories but if you (like many of us) wolf down the 8-10 biscuits then it could be upwards of 450 calories for most cookies (cream or even otherwise). That’s about one fourth to one-fifth of the daily requirement of calories for most sedentary people.
3. Total Fat
Here first of all you need to look up the Total Fats which is best to keep as low as possible (we all know how bad they are for our body in excess). Also understand here that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories. So, if your food has 10 grams of fat, it contains 90 calories from fat.
It is best to keep calories from fat less than 25% of the total calories.
And then it helps to read the finer print – the saturated fats (bad for the heart, so go for foods that keep these low; according to general guidelines it is best to keep sat fat less than 1/3rd of the total fat intake in a day – that is about 8% of total calories) and Trans fats (worst kind, so best to keep these nil).
Be careful with Trans fats: Look through the ingredients of the food. If you see the any mention of the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening”, then whatever food you are looking at contains some amount of trans fat... whether the food label says it does or not.
Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat are the good fats but most labels don’t have these mentioned.
Also Read : These Saturated Fats Can Put Your Heart at Risk
This is not as terrible as trans fats but best to keep this low as well as excess tends to clog the arteries. High cholesterol foods include beef, eggs (the yolk), cheese, poultry, and certain junk foods and pastries.
Also Read : 10 Ways To Lower Your Cholesterol With Diet
This refers to salt and daily intake ideally should not be more than 2400 mg per day. For example instant soups anyways tend to be really high on salt - usually above 5000 mg for a 100 gm packet, so if you have about half of a packet at a time (about 25 gm) – you’ll consume more than half of your daily requirement of sodium right away!
6. Total Carbohydrates
This reading usually includes carbohydrates, dietary fibre and sugars, so make sure to check the breakup given carefully. As long as the fibre content is high (say 3 gm or more per serving) than the food has sufficient complex carbohydrates for it to be good for you. Very low fibre means refined, so better avoided.
Most packaged foods tend to be really high in sugar - often making up to about 1/3rd of the ingredients weight. And that’s a lot of empty (nil nutrients) calories.
Besides doctors have been advising cutting down on sugar for a while now, so less is better.
Be careful of the terminology – ‘no added sugar’ used for most juices. This usually means that the food has not had sugar added to it as an ingredient, but does not mean that the food contains no sugar; it may contain natural sugar (for example if it has milk then lactose, if it has fruit than fructose).
Most juices have about 30 gm plus natural sugar in a 250 ml glass.
The average protein requirement of protein is between 50 to 75 grams for most people, (more for those who exercise). So calculate accordingly. Be wary of protein supplements and foods that give excessive protein per serve.
(The writer is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa))
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