I just don’t know what to buy,” despairs Rashmi Gupta, a housewife in Delhi’s Mayur Vihar area who was recently diagnosed with gluten allergy. Negotiating the grocery aisle now takes up a lot of Gupta’s time as she tries to read the labels and figure out what food is suitable for her. Hardly any carry the gluten-free label.
Forget allergen warnings (such as gluten and peanuts), even basic nutritional information is often missing from food labels in India, despite the Food Safety and Standards Act. Such labels that do exist are often adept at ambiguous vocabulary better suited to an advertorial, leaving the health-conscious consumer confused—or worse, misinformed.
Numbers do lie: Do nutrition labels give misleading information?
Act diktat hardly in action
Only as recently as 2006 did the Union government make it mandatory for all processed foods made or sold in India to carry nutritional labelling. The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006, amended in 2008, says food items should carry labels that include the weight of the product, list of ingredients present and nutrition information—including total calories (energy value) as well as amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fat, sodium (salt), sugars, dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals. Labels are also supposed to include trans-fat levels. Over and above this, according to the Act, the packaging and labelling of a food product should not mislead consumers about its quality, quantity or usefulness.
“Despite this Act, the small-scale manufacturers either skip this labelling procedure or mislead the consumers through false claims,” says Swati Bhardwaj, nutritionist, National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation (N-Doc), New Delhi. Even larger companies, some playing by more stringent rules in international markets, are guilty of misleading with labels such as “heart healthy”, “fat free” or “sugar free”, based on myths and half-truths.
According to Anoop Misra, director and head of the department of diabetes, obesity and metabolic diseases, Fortis Hospitals, New Delhi, it is a myth that if a label says “cholesterol free”, then the product will not affect blood cholesterol levels. “The truth is that even if a product has zero grams of cholesterol (for example, most products from plants), it can still negatively affect blood cholesterol levels if it contains high amount of trans- or saturated fats, which can raise the bad cholesterol,” he says.
Checklist for consumers
Incomplete, sketchy or non-existent information labels are obvious red flags, as are attention-grabbing claims prominently displayed. All should cue you to check the fine print.
Ingredients: Even where the nutrition panel is missing, says Ishi Khosla, head, Centre for Dietary Counselling, New Delhi, look at the ingredients list to estimate the fat, sugar or salt content. Usually ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, she says. In other words, the first ingredient on the list is the one found in the greatest amount.
Dietary disguises: “When you consume processed foods, a lot of sugars and salts are getting into your system,” says Khosla. Often fats, sugars and salts hide under other names. For instance, shortenings, tallow, cream, lard, nuts and seed, all translate to “fat”. Similarly, sugars may be listed as dextrose, sucrose, lactose, fructose, glucose, etc. Sodium goes beyond salt, disguised as baking powder, sodium metabisulphite, monosodium glutamate, and so on.
Fighting fat: For a low-fat diet, look for less than 10g fat per 100g of product. Also check the amount of saturated fat. Fats in the form of mono-unsaturated fatty acid (Mufa) and polyunsaturated fatty acid (Pufa), omega-3 and omega-6 are “good fats”; avoid trans-fatty acids (TFA) and high levels of saturated fats. Dr Misra says that according to the regulations, a product with 0.5g TFA per serving or less can be labelled “Trans Fat Free”. “In our recommendation (in a set of guidelines to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), we have requested the authority not to allow any such claim even if the product has 0.1g TFA per serving,” says Dr Misra. There is no decision on this yet.
“Trans fat is a zero-tolerance issue” for Khosla. Even with a 0.1g product, if a customer gets three or four such products, he will have
0.4g of trans-fat, in the mistaken belief that he is consuming a trans-fat-free diet. While saturated fats raise total cholesterol levels, TFAs raise total cholesterol and also reduce heart-protective good cholesterol (HDL). Every 2% increase in per day intake of TFAs is associated with a 23% increase in cardiovascular risk.
How it measures up: This is where even reputable manufacturers hide behind ambiguous statements. Nutritional info is typically listed “per serving” or “per 100g”. But what’s the size of a serving, according to the package? (Hint: read closely) And is 100ml really a likely serving for a 200ml box of juice? Make sure you do the math. However, says Khosla, “per 100g” labels are useful for comparing two products.
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