Reading Food Labels
The famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine and let your medicine be food.” In an age where most food comes from packets bought in supermarkets, the most significant way in which we can ensure that what we eat is actually good for us, is by learning to decode the fine print of food labels.
Food labels list all the ingredients in the food we consume, providing the amount of calories, fiber, and total fat grams it contains. Being able to read Food Labels ensures that consumers become conscious about what they eat. They also allow consumers to compare foods of different brands and choose foods that are healthier than others. Most importantly, Food Labels can help consumers to increase the quantities of healthy nutrients like vitamins and dietary fibre, and limit nutrients that can be unhealthy, like fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Some vital bits of information that Food Labels contain are – serving sizes, percentage daily values, added sugars, preservatives, fats, carbohydrates, proteins, sodium, vitamins, cholesterol and dietary fibre. Most nutrients are measured in grams, or milligrams (mg). Other information on the label is given in percentages of the daily allowance of that specific nutrient, based on a 2,000 calories a day diet.
 Decoding Serving Sizes
You might eat a large quantity of breakfast cereal thinking it contains only 150 calories, only to discover later that the calorific value is of one small serving. You on the other hand, have consumed three servings, increasing your calorific intake to 450 calories. This is a small example -- but imagine the plight of a diabetic who eats four biscuits thinking they are low in sugar, only to find that the amount of sugar listed was for a single biscuit! That is why the serving size and amount of servings per container is the first piece of information one must look for on a Food Label.
Here are some tips to maximize your diet based upon an understanding of serving sizes –
- If one serving of a favourite food contains too much sodium or cholesterol or any ingredient that you should not consume in excess, just eat less than a portion of it.
- To avoid underestimating the calories or other essential nutrients in a food or eating oversized portions, buy single serving packs. Eating out of the original packaging is a surefire way of getting confused over portion sizes.
- Here is a general idea of how to gauge the calorific value of a food item –
To be low in calories, the food must have 40 calories per serving, or lower. If the food contains around 100 calories per serving, you could say it has medium calories. Any food that has 400 calories or more per serving is high in calories. For a deeper understanding of the calorific values of different nutrients, read Food Labels: Understanding Them Is Critical To Your Health.
 Understanding Percentage Daily Values (DVs)
This figure refers to the percentage of the daily allowance of any particular nutrient that the food provides. So for instance, many juice packet labels declare that they provide as much as twenty per cent of the daily allowance of vitamin C. So a clear idea of DVs enables consumers to opt foods that are high in good nutrients and low in bad nutrients.
Very generally speaking, a DV of five per cent or less is low (so choose foods with such low values of trans fats, refined sugars and other `bad’ nutrients). A DV of anything over twenty per cent is high (eat lots of foods with high DVs of vitamins, fibre, iron and other `good’ nutrients).
It is important to also keep in mind that DVs are always listed for single servings – so for example if you eat four sausages with a DV of sodium estimated at twenty per cent, you would have consumed almost 80% of your Percent Daily Value of sodium!
 Review that Ingredient List
Understanding the ingredients in a particular food is very important especially when a person is allergic to some common ingredients like dairy products, nuts or wheat. It is also of paramount importance in enabling conscious consumers identify 'hidden' ingredients, like added sugars and trans fats (which are bad for health) or whole grains (good, unless you have a gluten allergy).
Here is a short list of the commonly used terms behind which poisons in our food lurk –
- Added sugars in food hide behind the following terms -- corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, corn sweetener, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup and sucrose.
- In countries such as the US, food companies are legally bound to list trans fats. However, this is not yet being do not in most other countries. You can often identify that they are in a food if it lists 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oil' on the ingredient list.
- Often, when a food is labeled multi-grain, 100% wheat, seven-grain, stone-ground, bran, or cracked wheat – chances are high that it is not completely whole grain.
- If your loaf of bread is made with `Enriched wheat flour’ – remember the term refers to refined flour from which the healthy bran and wheat germ has been polished off.
 Fat content
Understanding fats, and the difference between `good’ and `bad’ fats, is important for choosing the right foods. Unsaturated fats are healthier than saturated fats and trans fats. Nutritionists recommend limiting fat intake to 30 percent or less of daily calories, and to keep saturated fat to no more than one third of total fat, or 10 percent of calories.
Here is a list of some `bad’ fats (saturated fats and/or trans fats) -- hydrogenated vegetable oils, butter, beef fat, chicken fat, lard, margarine and shortening. You could replace these with some `good’ fats -- vegetable oils (except coconut oil and palm kernel oil) and nuts.
Reduced fat does not mean that the product is low in fat. It means that the product has less fat (say 25 percent less fat) in it than the full fat version. Moreover, reduced and low fat products may not be low in energy (calories). Many reduced fat or low fat foods and snacks are supplemented with other ingredients to make them taste good. A low fat yoghurt might have high sugar content, to make it taste good.
Baked not fried
Potato chips and snacks that claim to be healthier because they are baked, and not fried, may not have a lower fat content than their fried counterpart. If a product is high in fat, baking or frying it is not going to reduce its original fat content.
 Counting Carbs
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that 'after infancy, children should get about half of their daily calories from carbohydrates.' However, carbohydrates are also good or bad, depending on how heavily they have been refined (which reduces their dietary fibre and vitamin content, and makes them altogether too easy for the body to digest).
Some `good’ carbohydrates are fruits, whole grain breads, unsweetened cereals, beans, brown rice and potatoes. `Bad’ carbs, on the other hand, include the three Rs – refined sugar, refined white rice and refined flour.
 Fibre for Health
Reading food labels also helps you to choose foods that are high in dietary fibre. For instance, a can of vegetable soup, might have 4 or 5g of fiber per serving, while a pasta with cheese sauce may have comparatively much lower amounts of fibre.
High fibre foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grain cereals and breads. Foods with low fibre usually contain fewer vegetables or fruits, and often come loaded with empty calories from sugar or refined flour.
 Vitamins For Vitality
Reading food labels can also help you choose vitamin and mineral-rich foods. As a thumb rule whilst reading a Food Label, remember that if it contains between 10 to 19% DV of a particular vitamin or mineral, it is considered to be a rich source.
Keeping this in mind is especially useful since minerals like calcium and iron are often present where one would least expect to find them. For example, many people believe that only dairy produce is rich in calcium, but the fact is seaweed, almonds, molasses and broccoli are also good sources of the mineral. So those with lactose intolerance and teens (who actually need 130% DV of calcium) could check the food labels and find other calcium-rich foods.
 Becoming Cholesterol and Sodium aware
Here are some tips to minimize the intake of these commonly found nutrients which must be consumed in moderation by all.
- Choose foods whose labels say that they contain 140 mg of sodium per serving. Or else, you could also look out for those that are labeled `low Sodium'.
- If you want low cholesterol foods, look for ones with less than 20 mg of cholesterol per serving.
 Poisons in our Food
Here is a list of some food additives that are best avoided. Check food labels to make sure that what you consume does not contain these ingredients.
- Acesulfame-K - "Sunette"; may cause low blood sugar attacks; causes cancer, elevated cholesterol in lab animals.
- Artificial colors - contribute to hyperactivity in children; may contribute to learning and visual disorders, nerve damage; may be carcinogenic.
- Artificial sweeteners - associated with health problems; see specific sweetener.
- Aspartame - may cause brain damage in phenylketonurics; may cause central nervous system disturbances, menstrual difficulties; may affect brain development in unborn fetus.
- BHA - can cause liver and kidney damage, behavioral problems, infertility, weakened immune system, birth defects, cancer; should be avoided by infants, young children, pregnant women and those sensitive to aspirin.
- BHT - see BHA; banned in England.
- Blue No. 1 - see FD&C colors.
- Blue No. 2 - see FD&C colors.
- Brominated vegetable oil - linked to major organ system damage, birth defects, growth problems; considered unsafe by the FDA, can still lawfully be used unless further action is taken by the FDA.
- BVO - see brominated vegetable oil.
- Caffeine - psychoactive, addictive drug; may cause fertility problems, birth defects, heart disease, depression, nervousness, behavioral changes, insomnia, etc.
- Citrus Red No. 2 - see FD&C colors.
- FD&C colors - colors considered safe by the FDA for use in food, drugs and cosmetics; most of the colors are derived from coal tar and must be certified by the FDA not to contain more than 10ppm of lead and arsenic; certification does not address any harmful effects these colors may have on the body; most coal tar colors are potential carcinogens, may contain carcinogenic contaminants, and cause allergic reactions.
- Free glutamates - may cause brain damage, especially in children; always found in autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, enzymes, flavors & flavorings, gelatin, glutamate, glutamic acid, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, plant protein extract, protease, protease enzymes, sodium caseinate, textured protein, yeast extract, yeast food and yeast nutrient; may be in barley malt, boullion, broth, carrageenan, malt extract, malt flavoring, maltodextrin, natural flavors, natural chicken flavoring, natural beef flavoring, natural pork flavoring, pectin, seasonings, soy protein, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soy sauce, soy sauce extract, stock, whey protein, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, anything that is enzyme modified, fermented, protein fortified or ultrapasteurized and foods that advertise NO MSG; see MSG.
- Green No. 3 - see FD&C colors.
- Hydrogenated vegetable oils - associated with heart disease, breast and colon cancer, atherosclerosis, elevated cholesterol.
- MSG - may cause headaches, itching, nausea, brain, nervous system, reproductive disorders, high blood pressure; pregnant, lactating mothers, infants, small children should avoid; allergic reactions common; may be hidden in infant formula, low fat milk, candy, chewing gum, drinks, over-the-counter medications, especially children's, binders and fillers for nutritional supplements, prescriptiona nd non-prescription drugs, IV fluids given in hospitals, chicken pox vaccine; it is being sprayed on growing fruits and vegetables as a growth enhancer; it is proposed for use on organic crops.
- Neotame - similar to aspartame, but potentially more toxic; awaiting approval.
- Nitrates - form powerful carcinogens in stomach; can cause death; considered dangerous by FDA but not banned because they prevent botulism.
- Nitrites - may cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness; see nitrates.
- Nutrasweet - see aspartame.
- Olean - see olestra.
- Olestra - causes gastrointestinal irritation, reduces carotenoids and fat soluble vitamins in the body.
- Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils - see hydrogenated vegetable oil.
- Potassium bromate - can cause nervous system, kidney disorders, gastrointestinal upset; may be carcinogenic.
- Red No. 3 - see FD&C colors.
- Saccharin - delisted as a carcinogen in 1997, however, studies still show that saccharin causes cancer.
- Sulfites - destroys vitamin B1; small amounts may cause asthma, anaphylactic shock; dangerous for asthma, allergy sufferers; has caused deaths; banned on fresh fruits and vegetables, except potatoes.
- Sweet 'N Low - contains saccharin.
- Yellow No. 6 - see FD&C colors.
 The Bottomline
Many dangerous or unhealthy foods hide behind jargon or euphemisms. Consumers must remember that the writing on the food label has been carefully designed and worded to make it appear healthy. It is only by decoding the labels that consumers make informed choices about what they eat.
- Food Labels
- Revealing Trans Fats
 See Also