guide-to-read-food-labels
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Expert-reviewed by Ashwini S.Kanade, Registered Dietician and Certified Diabetes Educator with 17 years of experience.

So you’ve decided to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

You’ve chucked out the ice cream, namkeen, and chocolates from the kitchen.

You’ve started eating breakfast as well as a light, early dinner.

Plus, you’ve started exercising daily and sleeping before midnight.

It’s been a month. You’re feeling lighter, happier, and brighter.

But there’s a tiny thought that’s niggling you: how do I buy healthy food from the supermarket?

With the bold captions of low-fat, no sugar, and high-fibre, it’s easy to overlook the ingredients and nutrition values. Sadly, these labels fool you into thinking that the product is good for your health. Simply put, you shouldn’t believe everything written in a bold or attractive font.

You must turn the box or the bottle and scan the ingredients and nutrition label. They know these items could be doing more harm than good.

Let’s take the case of low-fat items. When you munch on a high-fat food, you’ll restrict your serving to a couple of bites as the fat makes you feel full. On the other hand, when you eat low-fat food, you tend to overeat it because you believe that you’re not consuming a lot of fat. What’s more, to make low-fat food taste as yummy as the high-fat ones, manufacturers add excess sugar, salt, preservatives which spell more trouble for your health.

Now that came as a shock, didn’t it?

The same concept applies to sugar-free or low-calorie foods.

To avoid such mistakes, learn how to read the labels. Yes, it can be a confusing and complicated process. But once you master it, you won’t fall into the trap of so-called healthy foods.

Here are some quick and easy tips to shop for the right items:

1. The serving size and number of servings:

You might check the calories, fat, sugar, and fibre content on the label. However, you may skip the most important nugget of information: serving size. The printed data specifies the nutrition content of a single serving size. And often, the packet may contain more than a single serving.

For example, the recommended serving of chips is around 15 chips and the label reads 3 servings per pack. But can you remember the last time you stopped at eating 15 chips and not the entire packet?

The bottom line: when your serving size goes wrong, you are consuming a higher amount of calories, sugar, and fat than written on the nutrition label.

Read all about the benefits of portion control here.

2. The calorie quota:

While it’s important to look at the overall calories, you should know where these calories are coming from. After all, not all calories are created equal.

For instance, the calories from sugar get digested easily and spike your blood sugar levels. This surge causes the pancreas to secrete more insulin and store the calories as fat.

Also, foods high in fat get stored as fat because fat is the only way your body knows how to store excess fat.

As a thumb rule, choose foods that contain less than 22.5 grams of sugar and 17.5 grams of fat in a 100-gram serving.

Keep your antennas on high alert for saturated fats too because they shoot up your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Pick foods that contain less than 5 grams of saturated fat in a 100-gram serving.

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3. Understanding % DV:

The % Daily Value (DV) is another way to understand the calorie and nutritional value of any commercial food. It helps you understand the percentage of each nutrient in one serving, as compared to the daily recommended amount. These percentages are calculated according to a 2000 calorie diet. 

So if the label for sugar reads 12% DV of sugar, it implies that the particular food provides 12% of the total amount of sugar you must eat if you’re consuming a 2000 calorie diet.

Remember 5% DV or lesser is considered low and 20% DV or more is high.

Choose foods with lower DV of saturated fats, sugar and cholesterol and higher DV of fibre, calcium, iron, and vitamins.

4. Sugar-free:

So the packet reads sugar-free? Bet you’re tempted to buy it. But before that, scan through the ingredient list. Do you see tapioca syrup, molasses, evaporated can juice, invert syrup, brown rice syrup, or maltodextrin? These are the hidden ways of how sugar creeps in packaged foods. In the long run, these chemicals do more harm than plain sugar.

In simple terms, sugar-free only means that the product does not have any added ‘sugar’.

5. Salt:

Yes, salt gives you zero calories. But it invites 100 troubles – swelling, water retention, and blood pressure – to name a few.

Salt is a natural preservative and is liberally used in packaged foods, especially the low-fat snacks to make them palatable. 

A quick tip: Buy foods which contain less than 0.2 grams of sodium or 0.6 grams of salt in a 100-gram serving. Avoid foods with more than 0.6 grams sodium or 1.5 grams salt in a 100-gram serving.

6. Zero trans fats:

Trans fats put you at a risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and metabolic syndrome. Despite these health concerns, trans fats are used in many commercial foods, particularly bakery products. In fact, many food items that carry a bold ‘zero trans fats’ label can contain up to 0.5g of trans fats in a single serving.

Instead of getting fooled by the ‘zero trans fat’ label, skim through the ingredient list. If the list contains hydrogenated oils, dalda, vanaspati ghee, or shortening, put it back to where it belongs - the shelf!

7. Multi-grain, whole wheat, or enriched with fibre:

Do you pat yourself on the back because you buy multi-grain bread and not white bread?

Or you eat digestive biscuits and not the cream ones?

This one is for you:

Just because the bread or biscuits contain whole wheat, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t packed with refined flour.

And don’t judge based on colour. Often brown bread is nothing but white bread with added caramel colour and sugar. The colour makes you think it is made of whole wheat. But it isn’t.

Instead, look for the words ‘100% whole wheat’.

And if you think high-fibre digestive biscuits are good for you, think again.

Make your own multigrain flour (atta) at home with this simple recipe.

These high-fibre biscuits need extra fat to bind the added fibre. So they are high on fat as compared to the regular ones.

8. Cholesterol free:

Companies put a prominent ‘zero cholesterol’ tag on most oil cans and pouches. And the good news is that all oils are cholesterol free!

Cholesterol is found in animal-origin products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, and not in plant foods like nuts and oilseeds. So don’t pay a bomb for the cholesterol-free oil. Buy the humble and cheap peanut or mustard oil instead.

With these tips, learn to look beyond the label and become a smart shopper.

Happy healthy shopping to you!

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Disclaimer: The information we share is verified by experts and scientifically validated. However, it is not a replacement for a doctor’s advice. Please always check with your doctor before trying anything suggested on this website.