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How to read Nutrient Labels

nutrient label
How to read Nutrient Labels

A lot of times I am asked, ‘what is healthy food’? I often answer, all food that is NOT commercially marketed (through advertorials or otherwise) is healthy food. But the demands of our present lifestyles leave us with no choice but to use a large amount of packaged or processed foods. Gone are the days when ‘loose’ biscuits used to be bought only as an occasional treat from the neighbouring bakery and consumption of bread was prohibited in many families. Today we buy almost everything prepackaged- right from the oil that we use for cooking to the cookies, breakfast cereal, daily bread and ready to eat foods! It only makes sense to be well informed about what all goes in the making of the foods that we are eating everyday and also how it affects our health.

Quite often the list of ingredients and nutrient contents seems quite formidable and one might not be able judge what is good or not from the jargon. It is best to pick a product by health goal e.g. if you are trying to lose weight, check the total calories and total fat; if you are diabetic, check the sugar and fat content; a product meant for children should have as little additives and refined ingredients (like refined wheat flour, sugar) as possible while for general healthy consumption by the family, any product that has more than 5 ingredients is best avoided.

Ignore the ‘front label’, read the truth at the back– Most products today come with front labels saying ‘heart healthy’, ‘fortified with vitamin A’, ‘cholesterol free’ or some similar tall health claims. A prudent shopper is one who ignores these claims and verifies the truth reading the actual contents at the back of the pack. Reading through these health benefit promises is very important. If a product says ‘multigrain’, in fact it might have only 10% of the grains and 80% refined wheat flour. Similarly, a fortified product is almost always one that has lost its nutrients due to processing and hence has ‘added synthetic nutrients’ which are of no great nutritional benefit.

Watch out for

Hidden Sugars such as fructose, dextrose, sucrose

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Partially Hydrogenated Oils – contain trans fats

Sodium nitrite and nitrate – found in processed meats

Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame

Artificial food colour

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Check the serving size– How many of you eat a bowlful of breakfast cereals or special K in the morning? Did you know that the actual serving size is only 30 g which comes to be roughly ¾ cup? So if you thought eating a bowlful of special K with milk (no sugar) is giving you only 142 calories and 0.5 g fat, you are wrong. Not because the product is misleading you, but because you have not checked the correct serving size and the serving suggestion. If you carefully read the nutrient labeling per serving on the packet, you will realize that it is supposed to be had with skimmed milk- and no;  cow’s milk, buffalo’s milk skimmed at home does not work, as it has more fat and calories than the skimmed milk suggested.

A popular ready to serve fruit beverage with real mango pulp has a serving size of 100 ml which ends up giving you 63 calories. But if you down the entire bottle which contains 350 ml of the drink, you would end up adding 220.5 empty calories which are way more than a serving of poha or upma! Plus, how idealistic is stating 100 ml as a serving size for a drink, it is just half a glass!

Understand the ingredients– The Indian Food Code 2012 states that ingredients on a packaged food have to be listed in the ascending order of their amounts in the product. A mango fruit drink hence has water and sugar as the first two ingredients and mango pulp (single strength implying diluted) coming in third. What is worth noting here is that despite it being a fruit drink, the actual fruit pulp forms only 16% of the entire drink! Another example is that of high fiber multigrain biscuits which have refined wheat flour (maida/ all purpose flour), refined vegetable oil/fat, sugar as the first three ingredients and then somewhere come the various grain flours which would essentially amount to not more than 10% of the entire biscuit. A useful rule of thumb is, if the product has a long list of ingredients half of which you don’t know what they are, you are better off choosing another product.

Compare products– One of the benefits of shopping at the supermarket is that you have ample options to choose from. Always make sure that you have enough time on hand when you shop for groceries so that you can compare products for their prices as well as their nutrients.  This is important especially when one is trying to control sodium intake or dietary fat. Remember to compare on the basis of similar quantities – contents per 100 g or the standard serving size.

Trans Fats – World over everyone has now woken up to the dangers of consuming trans fat in foods and a lot of countries have mandated trans fat labeling. Products with trans fats must be avoided. But if at all you have a craving for cream filled cookies or cheese slices, make sure that you opt for a product that has not more than 0.1 percent trans fats, and do not exceed the serving size. The trans fats content in foods might seem very negligible, but in no time it adds up to make it a very unhealthy daily consumption of transfat.  Foods that have trans fat are almost always also high in saturated fat which is the fat to be avoided to avoid risk of cardiac diseases.

NO MSG labels– There is a reason why many instant foods or ready to eat products come with the NO MSG label. Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) is a taste enhancer which is reported to change one’s perception of taste and satiety and cause a craving for it. The Mayo Clinic, USA states that the MSG symptom complex can include headaches, numbness, tingling or burning in the face, neck and other areas, flushing, sweating, chest pain, rapid heartbeats, nausea and weakness. As a result, consumers are increasingly trying to avoid products with MSG. One needs to be on the lookout for not just MSG stated as is but its other names (which have been allowed by the USFDA) such as hydrolyzed plant protein, glutamate, yeast protein, maltodextrin, soy protein concentrate, autolyzed yeast, yeast extract etc.

To use the age old cliché, ‘your health is in your hands’. It would be prudent to avoid as much processed packaged foods as possible. Stick to foods having no more than five ingredients and absolutely no ‘chemist’ jargon. Make foods ahead of time so that you don’t have to rely on convenience foods. Learn to cook and enjoy pure unadulterated food made from all natural ingredients. Learn to keep yourself and your family healthy.

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