When I was in School, I loved collecting and pasting colorful labels on my text books and notes. Among all the cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse was one of my favorites! I remember my Dad buying me labels and scented rubbers with Mickey Mouse on it along with books that he used to often purchase from Gangaram book house Bangalore.
But, when I entered college, my craze for labels declined. Many times it was not just labels, but the books on which they were pasted 😉 Later, when I developed interest in the field of Food Science and Nutrition, my craze towards labels was regained. But, this time I did not like just the labels, but the products on which they were pasted too! Yes, I am talking about ‘Food labels’.
What are food labels? In simple words, a food label is a printed information found on a packet of any food stuff that you buy, furnishing details regarding the name of the product, manufacturer, date and place of manufacture, net weight, cost, best before dates, ingredient list and nutrient content.
The Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) of 2006 clearly states in one of its chapters that ‘ No person shall manufacture, distribute, sell, or expose for sale, nor dispatch or deliver to any agent or broker for the purpose of sale, any packaged food product that is not marked and labelled in the manner specified by regulation’. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India was established to speed up the implementation of various rules and regulations in the act
Food labelling can be a boon to consumers if the consumer reads what is printed on the packet. Though the information is printed, many do not feel the need to go through it as they are always in a hurry during purchasing, or they are using the same product since many years and hence information printed is not important for them. Whether in hurry or not, one thing that is checked always is the price of the product and sometimes the expiry date. There are many other details that are furnished on the product that are important.
Check the ingredient list, quantity of ingredients added, net weight and best before dates. Also take a look at some instructions given in order to preserve and retain the quality of the product like, ‘store in air tight containers after opening’, ‘refrigerate after opening’, ‘keep away from direct sunlight’, ‘store in cool and dry place’, etc.
Some instructions are provided as to how to use the contents of the pack, this if followed precisely, the desired quality of product is obtained. Try to check the address of the manufacturer or packer, as this gives a clear indication of place where the product was manufactured. Without this information, the product’s quality cannot be trusted.
Checking the food label becomes essential for a person at times. For Eg: If your child is lactose intolerant, then before buying any food that the child consumes, a mandatory check is required to rule out the presence of lactose or milk in the product. Some are allergic to specific foods. Products containing major allergens (allergy causing agents) like peanuts, nuts like almonds, cashews and walnuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, sesame, soybeans and gluten, are labelled as “may contain ….” If these allergens are found in the ingredient list, then buying such products should be avoided by people who are allergic to such foods. A person who cannot tolerate gluten in the diet must look for ‘Gluten-free’ printed on the label.
According to the law, vegetarian food should be identified by a green symbol and non-vegetarian food with a brown symbol. A thorough examination of food label will provide you all the information that you are looking for in a product.
Always check packaged cut vegetables which are ready to use and sprouts of various grams available in the market. These are locally packed and hence come with minimum information on the packet. Check the ‘best before date’ and then make a purchase. Chapatis, rotis, pizza bases, breads, cakes, muffins are some of the items which spoils soon. Checking the ‘best before dates here again is helpful. As the moisture content of these products is high, the chances of mould growth on it are high.
Any food additive (colors, flavors, preservatives) that is added to food during processing has to be mentioned on the food label.
MSG (Mono sodium glutamate) is added to help enhance the flavor of food. The taste gained from naturally occurring or added MSG in foods is described as Umami’ – the fifth basic taste after sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami is the savoury taste that people enjoy in foods. Many products and restaurants claim “No added MSG” due to the consumer demand for products without MSG. This claim means that the manufacturer has not added MSG into the food. It is important to remember that there may be naturally occurring glutamates in the food even if it has a “no added MSG” claim. Glutamates occur naturally in protein foods such as meat, fish, poultry and vegetables. Free glutamates are found in foods like tomatoes, tomato paste, cheese and mushrooms. Common foods that can contain added MSG include savoury foods such as stocks, seasonings, soup, sauces and savoury snacks or meals.
Beginning of this year, India joined a select band of countries where food containing genetically modified content must be labelled as such. Genetically modified foods should contain ‘GM’ printed on label. If the ingredients are derived from genetically modified organisms, then the label reads GMOs.
Reading nutritional information that are printed on the product makes sense if a consumer can understand the importance of it and knows how the information is helpful to him/her. The calories, protein, fat, vitamin and mineral content of the product is analyzed and then printed. Following are some important points that you might find useful when you read a nutritional label next time.
Nutritional information is usually given per 100gram of product or for a specific Serving size (eg: 25g or 32g etc). Checking the net weight of the product helps to know how much more calories or fat is consumed if the serving size is doubled or tripled.
This is what most people want to know whether the food comes in a packaged form or it is served at home or elsewhere! Most of the food labels will tell you the total number of calories from each serving of the food and the number of those calories which are derived from fat. If the serving sizes are increased the calories consumed also increases. At the bottom of some labels, the ‘% daily values’ (DV) are mentioned, which are the recommended levels of intake for 2,000-2,500 kcal diet. But a individual should know his/her calorie requirement per day in order to know how much calories is met by the serving size of a specific product and how much more has to be adjusted.
Look for the words sugar, as in palm sugar or invert sugar; sweetener, as in corn sweetener; or syrup, as in brown rice syrup or malt syrup. Sometimes manufacturers split up sugar into dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, cane crystals etc. Ingredients list is given in descending order of weight so, the higher up on the list an ingredient is the more of it a product contains. If sugar is one of the first two ingredients, then you know the product is rich in sugar. More sugar means more calories!
Saturated fats, PUFA and Trans Fat content
In the product, if most of the fat comes from unsaturated fats, then it’s a healthy option to choose from. If it is saturated fat or trans fat that the product is rich in, then a second thought is required. Trans fat has been shown to increase levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol while decreasing levels of “good” HDL . Even though some labels claim ‘zero trans fat’, the amount of trans fat present could be in traces like 0.6 or 0.7mg/100gram of the product. When choosing foods low in trans fat, make sure they are also low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Avoid hydrogenated fats.
Usually the sodium content is mentioned in milligrams (mg). Excess sodium is not recommended due to its ill effects on blood pressure and increase risk of heart diseases. Most of the processed foods (tomato sauces, canned soups, chips, etc) have high sodium content. 2300mg is the recommendation for sodium per day for adults.
This will give information on the total of all the different types of carbohydrates you consume from eating the mentioned servings of the food.
This tells you how many grams (g) of fiber are there in the product. Fiber helps prevent bowel problem. Indian population has no problem with the amount of fiber content in the diet as most of it is met through diet. Labels of food that says whole grain foods and high fiber breakfast cereals contain fiber depending on how much amount of whole grains have really been used in the product.
Word ‘whole’ can give you an idea of any grain that is present in the product without undergoing any processing. If the grain is refined, then the germ and bran layer containing essential nutrients have been lost during processing. ‘Enriched’ products losses key nutrients and fiber during processing. Try selecting whole grain products during purchase.
Vitamins and minerals
Some labels just mention the amount of vitamin in mg for example, 10mg of vitamin C per 100 ml. Most of the times vitamins and minerals are mentioned in percent of daily value (DV). This is the amount of each nutrient considered sufficient for healthy adults. It is opined that a food that contains anywhere from 10 percent to 19 percent of the DV is considered a good source of a nutrient.
Do we need to check label to eat even a small packet of biscuit or chips?? Yes! In simple words, as consumers, we pay money for the products we buy and hence it is our ‘Right’ to know what goes into making that product!
Food labels have lots of information to offer, only if the consumer is keen to receive it. Nutritional labelling enables consumers to make wise choices while selecting foods. A label reading ‘healthy’, ‘quick and tasty’, ‘low fat’ can be assessed well when the label is read well.
A label on a vegetable oil may read ‘no cholesterol’, but it is up to the consumer to know that all vegetable oils have no cholesterol in them! A candy cover may say ‘no fat’ on it but it is wise to know that candy has sugars and sugar contribute to calories! So next time you read a food label do not get carried away with ‘no’, ‘less’, ‘free’ words, check the labels.
Today, I love reading Labels, be it on a book or on a product. A ‘Mickey Mouse label’ represents one of my books on ‘Food Labels’ …A label representing labels!! 😉