Decoding food labels: How to make informed decisions

Decoding food labels: How to make informed decisions

On May 6th, World No Diet Day is observed annually, with the aim of promoting body acceptance and raising awareness about the potential harms of diet culture and overly restrictive eating habits.

On May 6th, World No Diet Day is observed annually, with the aim of promoting body acceptance and raising awareness about the potential harms of diet culture and overly restrictive eating habits.

Today, we explore a fundamental aspect of our daily lives: understanding food labels. We’ll debunk common myths associated with food labelling and demystify the jargon often found on packaged foods encountered daily. As we navigate the aisles of supermarkets or grocery stores, we’re frequently drawn to enticing words on food packages like “low-fat,” “zero-cholesterol,” “sugar-free,” and “heart-healthy.”

So, what should we look for on a food label? Firstly, we should ensure the presence of the FSSAI(Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) mark, which is mandatory for all packaged foods and beverages in India. Additionally, we can consider markers like vegetarian or non-vegetarian indications, identification of fortified products, and the Jaivik Bharat label for organic products. For palm oil, look out for the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification schemes, which support sustainable practices. Of course, checking the “best before date” is a given.

While companies may boast about their products on the front packaging, the real insights lie in the small box on the back containing nutritional information and ingredient lists. Let’s begin by demystifying some commonly misunderstood terms in food labelling.

Low-calorie: This term often leads to misconceptions. “Low-calorie” doesn’t mean you can consume unlimited quantities without consequences. It simply implies that compared to another version of the same product, it contains slightly fewer calories, typically around 10% to 20% less. Always check the calorie content per serving and the specified serving size.

For instance, a pack of biscuits may claim to contain only 100 calories per serving (say, 2 biscuits), but consuming the entire pack (10 biscuits) would result in consuming significantly more calories than perceived.

Zero sugar or no sugar: This label can be misleading as well. Products marketed as “zero sugar” or “no sugar” might not contain regular sucrose, but they could be sweetened with alternative sweeteners that provide similar calorie and carbohydrate profiles. Ingredients like barley malt, molasses, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, maltose, maltodextrin, and malt powder can be used, allowing companies to claim their products as “sugar-free” despite potential health risks comparable to using regular sugar. The World Health Organization has cautioned against the consumption of artificial sweeteners due to their potential adverse effects on insulin resistance and overall health.

Low Fat: Dietary fat itself does not directly cause obesity. Rather, it’s the excess calories, primarily from refined carbohydrates, that stimulate insulin production and convert into fats stored in adipose tissue. Additionally, not all types of fats increase cholesterol levels. Dietary cholesterol, for instance, doesn’t significantly impact blood cholesterol levels.

A product labelled “low fat” doesn’t necessarily equate to healthfulness. To compensate for reduced fat content, manufacturers often augment these products with excessive carbohydrates, especially refined ones. This can exacerbate obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and other metabolic syndrome parameters, particularly prevalent in India, the diabetic capital of the world. In such cases, a low-carbohydrate diet may be more beneficial in improving health outcomes compared to a low-fat diet.

Zero Cholesterol: The term “zero cholesterol” is another frequently misunderstood label. Cholesterol, a lipid found exclusively in animal tissues, isn’t inherently unhealthy. It’s a crucial component of cell membranes and vital for various physiological functions. Unlike animal-derived products, plant-based foods naturally lack cholesterol. Therefore, labelling plant-based oils like canola or sunflower oil as “zero cholesterol” is misleading, as they inherently contain no cholesterol. Rather than focusing on cholesterol content, it’s more crucial to scrutinise carbohydrate and sugar content in food products.

Trans Fat: Trans fats are produced artificially through the hydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids. Incidentally, palm oil, which is semi-solid at room temperature, contains zero trans fats and is used in processed foods as it does not need to undergo the hydrogenation process, unlike other oils that are liquid at room temperature. Consuming trans fats can lead to adverse health effects.

Trans fats, when consumed excessively, integrate into various bodily functions, potentially increasing LDL cholesterol and decreasing HDL cholesterol levels, along with inducing inflammation in blood vessels. This instability in cell membranes can elevate the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Therefore, it’s essential to avoid partially hydrogenated fats in our diets.

Fatty Acids: Fatty acids can be classified into three types: saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids, based on their chemical structure. Saturated fatty acids, like those found in coconut oil, are solid at room temperature due to their molecular arrangement. In contrast, unsaturated fatty acids, characterised by double bonds, are typically liquid at room temperature.

Comparing Fats

Saturated Fats: Saturated fats, like those found in butter or coconut oil, can raise LDL cholesterol levels but also increase HDL cholesterol and decrease triglycerides, resulting in a neutral or possibly beneficial effect on heart health for most individuals. It’s not necessary to completely avoid saturated fats.

Monounsaturated Fats: Monounsaturated fats, such as those in olive oil, palm oil, sesame oil, groundnut oil and mustard oil are generally considered healthy due to their positive effects on lipid profile. Palm oil, particularly palm olein, contains a balanced ratio of saturated and monounsaturated fats, which studies suggest may not significantly impact LDL cholesterol levels due to the presence of monounsaturated fats. However, it’s important to note that the concentration of polyunsaturated fats in palm oil is low, reducing its pro-inflammatory properties.

Polyunsaturated Fats: Polyunsaturated fats, prevalent in oils like sunflower oil, have a higher proportion of pro-inflammatory fats, which may adversely affect heart health in the long term.

Choosing Wisely:

When selecting oils or fats, it’s crucial to consider their composition and impact on health. For instance, palm oil, often criticised, has zero trans fats and zero cholesterol and may have a neutral effect on LDL cholesterol levels due to its balanced composition. Meanwhile, vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fats, despite reducing cholesterol levels, may pose risks to heart health due to their inflammatory properties.

Furthermore, oils like groundnut, mustard, or sesame oil, with higher monounsaturated fatty acid content, even though healthier, may be unsuitable for certain food processing industries due to their distinct flavours. Ultimately, decisions should not solely rely on one ingredient but consider various factors like sugar, carbohydrate, and calorie content.

Developing the habit of reading food labels thoroughly is essential to make informed choices and avoid falling prey to misleading claims by food industries. Failure to do so may lead to unhealthy dietary decisions.

(The author is a M.D. (Pediatrics) from Bangalore Medical College and MBBS - Stanley Medical College, Chennai. Currently working as Consultant Paediatrician and Nutrition specialist.)

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