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Read before you eat – What nutrition and ingredient labels are telling you about ‘healthy’ food

Learning to read nutrition and ingredient labels helps you build awareness to see through marketing gimmicks by FMCG companies.

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The food industry preys on those who can’t see food for what it is. Not many among us read, or know how to read and interpret the nutrition and ingredient labels on packaged food products. But when you do, you acquire a level of awareness that helps you see through the marketing gimmicks of FMCG companies. You overcome the emotional blindness that the food industry hopes you retain.

Misbranding, along with bogus health claims to attract consumers, is a huge problem in India. Most of the companies target children, the health-conscious and those with a health condition. Nutritionists, including myself, don’t know if we can ask our clients to believe what they read on a nutrition label.


Also Read: WFH and gaining weight by eating junk, ordering online? This is how you can fix it


The health drink mania

Faster memory and height in kids: Every parent wants the best for their children. Complan is one of the most preferred brands of drinks for Indian parents striving to provide good health to their kids. Every ’90s kid wanted to be a ‘Complan boy’ or a ‘Complan girl’. However, Complan has been prosecuted multiple times for their claim to help children – “grow two times faster”.

In 2012, Complan and Complan Memory were prosecuted under the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) for claiming to double the rate of growth and memory enhancement in children. Previously, in 2010, the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration filed a charge sheet against Complan for the same advertisement. The manufacturer of Complan produced a study funded by themselves to counter the complaint. Unfortunately, the study was found to be scientifically flawed by a renowned paediatrician. The expert commented, “the study’s design, randomization and analyses show it is highly prone to bias.”

More Stamina: Horlicks and Boost, which claim to provide more stamina, also lack substantial scientific evidence. The manufacturer quoted a controversial scientific report by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) to claim Horlicks is “clinically proven” to enhance growth in children. However, the NIN denied any such claim.

The nutritional composition of these drinks fails to justify the health claims as they mostly contain a huge amount of sugar and malt. According to the World Health Organization, we need only six teaspoons of sugar per day; anything more gets converted into fat. Sugary food consumption is one of the leading reasons for childhood obesity worldwide.


Also Read: Health drinks like Bournvita, Horlicks give your kids more sugar & hardly any nutrition


Absence of ‘harmful’ substances

No sugar, no maida: The second most deceptive food claim is ‘no sugar’ or ‘sugar-free’. Most ‘diet-friendly’ food claim their products to be free from added white refined sugar. A thorough look at their labels shows the presence of either honey or high fructose corn syrup, malt, dextrin or even sugar alcohols like maltitol or sorbitol, simple starches that, like sugar, have empty calories. The absence of table sugar doesn’t mean they are free from sugar calories.

Digestive biscuits, “immunity-boosting” sugar-free chyawanprash, sugar-free cream cracker biscuits, are few such food products that beg a closer look at the ingredient list.

For instance, Sunfeast claims its Farmlite Digestive biscuits do not have added sugar and refined wheat flour. However, the product provides 497 calories per 100 grams, 200 calories of which comes from 22.7 grams of fat. The rest, which is approximately 300 Kcal, come from wheat flour and maize starch. These are simple starches like the ones found in Maida.

Light or ‘lite’: The term “light” or “lite” is supposed to refer to a food that has 50 per cent less fat as compared to the original. However, there are several cooking oils that refer to themselves as being light because of their colour or appearance.

In 2012, one of India’s most used cooking oils – Saffola – was under the scanner of FSSAI. Saffola claims that the oil has a good balance of MUFA and PUFA that helps you achieve better nutrition through fats, unlike single seed oils. Saffola’s product Saffola Gold is a mixture of rice bran oil and safflower oil. Another product, Saffola Active, is a combination of rice bran oil and soybean oil. Saffola claims to lower cholesterol as it contains omega-3 enriched soybean oil, which helps in lowering cardiovascular risk factors. However, omega 3 alone isn’t an indicator of good health, it’s the ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 that matters. There is a lack of scientific evidence in claiming health benefits from these safflower-based cooking oils.


Also Read: Want to learn to manage your diabetes? Free online nutrition course can help with health tips


‘Natural substances’

Made with real fruits – A completely synthetic product that has one raisin, one peach or one grape in it can also be labelled as “made with real fruit.” In reality, the real count of real fruits and vegetables are pretty small in such products.

A survey involving 838 participants from India indicated that 71.9 per cent of the respondents claimed that they do not use a shopping list and more than half of them (61.8 per cent) indicated that their choice of specific foods was not based on nutrition information.

Only 9.3 per cent of consumers claimed to read nutrition labels while shopping. Additionally, not everyone who can read nutrition labels understands what they are reading. In this study, 57.7 per cent of the consumers said they “don’t understand” the food labels, whereas only 39.7 per cent  “partially understand” the information.

Reading nutrition labels isn’t enough as they can be misleading at times. A consumer must look at the ingredients and match the health claims with the nutritional value of those ingredients. Read before you eat.

Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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