How To Read Food Labels?

March 11, 2022

Food labels provide nutritional values, ingredients, and quality information. It is one of the most important and direct means of communicating information to the consumer. This information is provided to make healthier choices for consumers. However, do consumers notice such labels, do they read and understand them, and do they use them in their purchasing decisions, or do they know how to read them?

According to a survey, 61.8% of consumers indicated that their choice of specific foods is not based on nutrition information. They do not even look at the food label. So, it’s the consumer’s responsibility to make a habit of checking food labels.

In a food label, the important things that we need to see are

  • The name of the food
  • Nutritional information and serving size
  • List of ingredients
  • Veg/Non-veg
  • Presence of Food Additives
  • Name and Address of the Manufacturer
  • Net quantity
  • Date of Manufacturing

After this, understanding food labels is very important to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy options in packaged foods. This article will help you understand the nutrients, ingredient list, per cent daily value, serving size, and calories.

Learn to read a nutrition label before you consume any product.

Nutrients are required by our body to grow and function properly. Nutrients impact your health, so it is necessary to eat the right ones. Trans fat, added preservatives, and added sugars are items listed on the label that may be associated with adverse health effects. Other nutrients listed on the labels, like vitamins, calcium, dietary fiber, and potassium, are good for our health and can be consumed. But remember not to eat these nutrients in excess and to know whether the nutrient is excess or not per cent daily value is given. 

Per cent daily value (%DV) is the daily value percentage for each nutrient in a food serving. The daily value is the reference amount of the nutrient that can be consumed in a day.

As a general guide, 5%DV or less of a nutrient per serving is low, and 20%DV or more of a nutrient is high. So one should choose food lower in %DV for trans fats and added sugars.

Nutrient composition on a label is generally written per 100 g or serve. For example, if a packet of good day biscuits claims carbohydrate 65g of, that means 65g of carbohydrate is present in 100g biscuits and not of the total biscuits present in the packet. Similarly, with calories, calories are the amount of energy you get from food. It is given per 100g.

Serving information, the serving size and the number of servings in the packet are also present on the food label. Serving size tells how much gram 1 serve contains. E.g., it is written serving size: is 1 cup. Now if you consume 2 cups, you ate twice the serving. This will also double the calories, %DV, and composition. The amount of serving, for 4 serves per container, tells about the number of serves per packet.

Nutrient claims on a packet state that it has extra beneficial properties. The most common nutrient claims are low fat, fat-free, low sugar, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, high fiber, and low calorie. These nutrition claims should meet government regulations before appearing on the package. Some also mislead customers by giving any nutrient claims. So if a package claims the following, it should meet the requirements:

Claim Means
Low Fat This means the food should have 3g or less fat content per serving.
Low calorie This means that the food should contain 25% fewer calories than the original version of the food.
Fat-Free Means that the food should contain no more than 0.5 g of fat per 100g or 100 ml.
High fibre This means the food should contain 4g of fiber per serving.
Low sugar This means that the food should contain no more than 5g of sugars per 100 g for solids or 2.5 g per 100 ml for liquids.
Sugar-free This means that the food should contain no more than 0.5g of sugar per 100g or 100ml of that food.
No added sugar This means that sugar is present, but no sugar is added while processing.

Even if the package says low sugar and also its nutrition information meets the requirement, the product contains unknown added sugars whose names customers are unaware of, and the customers are misled.

Some names of the added sugars are given below:

Barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.

Added syrups: Carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.

All these added sugars are not good for health. 

Food Additives 

Many packaged foods contain food additives. Food additives are substances added to food to preserve or enhance taste, flavor, and appearance. But these additives are harmful to our health in several ways. 

One such additive is Carrageenan: it is a sea vegetable high in iodine, sulfur, trace minerals, and vitamins. It is used to improve the texture of the food. In recent research, Carrageenan is a major cause of diabetes, ulcers, and metabolic syndromes.

Tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ: TBHQ, is a common preservative that manufacturers use to prolong their products’ shelf life. It is in vegetable oil, processed animal items, snack crackers and noodles.

According to the FDA, only 0.02% of TBHQ is allowed in food. However, in research, it has been found that there is 5 -10% of TBHQ present in food products. High consumption of this additive can cause tumours, liver enlargement, neurotoxic effects, convulsions and paralysis.

Sodium benzoate: Sodium benzoate is a preservative often added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices and condiments. According to the FDA, it has many harmful effects. It causes hyperactivity in a 3-year-old child and shows symptoms of ADHD. Sodium benzoate, combined with vitamin c, the harmful product benzene, is formed in our body and is associated with cancer development. So, looking at these food additives, it is suggested that too much consumption harms us. We should always check how much of these are present in food. When consumed in large amounts, other harmful food additives are MSG, sodium nitrites, sulfites, BPA, and potassium bromate.

BOTTOM LINE: Millions of packaged foods are available in the market, and we find them reliable and good. But the truth is these are not good for our health; they are the major cause of bad health. Smartness is in avoiding packaged food and consuming wholesome homemade food. And under situations where the usage of packaged foods is required, make sure to check the food label and then buy the product. Health is our responsibility; always check first and then choose the right item. 

References :

  1. 12 Common Food Additives — Should You Avoid Them?
  2. 7 Common Food Additives And What They Bring To Your Table
  4. FSSAI Guidelines on Labelling of Food Products

Riya Sugandhi
Functional nutritionist- R & D division

Riya has a Master's in Nutrition and dietetics with a specialization in Public health nutrition. She believes food is a way to one's heart and with the right nutrition, it is the key to mind. With being a Functional nutritionist she also is working in our R&D team to find, re-work and provide knowledge out to the world. "Unlearn to learn the right nutrition" is an expression she works by.

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