Whoever said ignorance is bliss, definitely did not know how to read nutritional labels! Whether you are the Eat to Live type or the Live to Eat kind, the food is a crucial part of all our lives and we can all be smarter about the way we shop, prepare, eat and dispose of food. Nutrition, in totality is a very involved science and the amount of information, misinformation, and contradictory advice available in the sea called web can indeed get overwhelming for someone who just wants to make an informed healthier choice between two types of products.
Here’s a quick guide to help you decode the useful information on nutrition labels of packaged products and thereby make better and healthier food choices in your daily lives.
- Ingredient List: Products which have more than one ingredient will have the ingredients or contents listed on the label, and what’s nice about this section is the contents are listed in descending order of their composition. For instance, if you are looking to include flaxseed in your diet and if flaxseed is mentioned as the last few of the many ingredients on a product label, you might want to look at other product options for your dose of flaxseed. After all, what good would a product with just a sprinkle of flaxseed do, right? Further, you should be on the lookout for products with as many real food items (instead of artificial replacements) and cross - check for any items that you are allergic or averse to consuming.
- Net Weight & Serving size: Net weight is the total amount of product inside the package & serving size denotes the quantity of one normal portion consumed by a person. No. of servings (if not specified separately) is total net weight divided by serving size. Nutritional information is listed per serving size, or per 100 grams of the product. Whenever comparing two products, do take a note of the portion size of the information listed. To know what nutrients you are consuming at one time, compare your portion size with the serving size. E.g. If the serving size is one bowl, and you eat one and a half bowls, you are getting 1.5 times the calories, fat, protein and all other nutrients listed on the label.
- Ingredients that are an easy assessment of the healthy quotient of a product are calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, fibre. Ingredients that are an unhealthy quotient of a product are saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, sugar.
- Calories: The calories we consume play a direct role in our weight management, however, the source of the calories is crucial too, and is often overlooked over its numeric value, e.g. consuming 200 calories from pumpkin seeds are any day better than consuming 100 calories of fried potato chips. The key is the ratio of the calorie count to the overall nutritional value of the food. Calories from processed foods like sugar, refined flours, and saturated fats tend to be unhealthy for the body.
- Carbohydrates, fibre & sugar: In this section, the total amount of carbohydrates is not as useful as its breakdown into fibre and sugar is. While making any product choice, our aim should always be to increase the intake of fibre and decrease the intake of sugar. For easier comparisons, 4gram of sugar is one teaspoon of sugar and foods with 6gram of fibre per 100 gram is considered as high sources of fibre.
- Fat: When it comes to fats, the most common misunderstanding is that our bodies don’t need fat at all. Do not keep down a product just because you see a high amount of total fat on the label, instead always check the breakdown of total fat into saturated and trans-fat vs. unsaturated fats – our aim should be to minimize the use of saturated and trans-fat and rather consume unsaturated fat as per our dietary needs.
- Products with good amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron and calcium are good for our bodies in general. High levels of sodium, on the other hand, proved to be harmful, leading to high BP and increased risk of heart diseases.
Percentage of daily value: Daily value is the amount of certain nutrients that most people need each day. Foods that contain at least 10 percent of the daily value for a nutrient are good sources of that nutrient, and foods that contain 20 percent of the daily value for a nutrient are considered high in that nutrient. When looking to increase intake of particular nutrient, the % values can also be used. Take a note of the footnote about % values (%DVs are based on a 2,000 calorie diet) and compare the same with your daily intake.
Do not get swayed by fad terms like ‘Light’, ‘Lite’, ‘Organic’, ‘natural’, etc. mentioned on the front of the product without cross-checking with the detailed information on the nutritional label.
Lastly, always check the Best before, date of manufacture and date of packaging before buying the products to check if the products are fit for consumption at the time of purchase.