­­­­­­­­­­When it comes to pre-packaged “health" foods, a cursory look at labels just isn’t enough to base decisions on. At my clinic, I’ve seen how patients very often miss out on the fine print—the actual nutrition information on the back of the packaging—and believe the marketing blurb on the front of the packet that boldly says “zero cholesterol" or “fat free".

•A globetrotting senior executive found that despite eating only a certain brand of “brown" bread with “zero cholesterol" spread and “low-fat" biscuits, he couldn’t bring down his cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

•A teenager is low on self-esteem because she can’t seem to lose weight despite eating foods that are bought from “diet stores". Her only “indulgence" is a particular brand of “noodles we have all grown up on", in its new “atta" avatar.

•A homemaker cannot understand why she is so low on energy and constantly hungry, despite eating healthy food and salad with “zero fat" dressings, “low or zero fat" snacks, and using virtually no oil in her cooking.

Read between the lines: Just going by labels to select processed foods does not always ensure health benefits.

“Low fat", “brown" or “multigrain" bread, “zero cholesterol", “low sodium", “fortified", “real", “natural", etc., are generally gimmicks used by marketing agencies to attract the consumer to a product.

Let’s analyse a few such labels and see if they are indeed “health foods", and how the three types of common complaints mentioned above are a result of eating foods influenced by labels.

Zero cholesterol or cholesterol free

Though vegetable oil contains no cholesterol, it is still nothing but fat. We very often prefer it to butter or lard because it has less saturated fat, but 1 tbsp of vegetable oil has 14g of fat and the same 100-odd calories that are found in 1 tbsp of butter or cream, which means it has the potential to raise cholesterol levels in the blood. This explains why weight and cholesterol don’t budge. There is only one way out of this—to limit the quantity of oil consumed, and check the percentages of kinds of fats present in cholesterol-free foods to stay away from saturated fats.

Fat free or low fat

If a food label says “low fat" or “fat free", read the “Nutrition Facts" to see if it’s really a healthy choice. Usually these foods are stripped of their natural fats, and to compensate for the loss of taste (fats heighten taste), high levels of sodium or more sugars, or thickeners as emulsifiers, are added, which are bad for the system. For example, propylene glycol, a synthetic solvent commonly used as an emulsifier in foods, is recognized as toxic to the skin and is considered a neurological toxin as well. Also, these foods miss out on the filling effects of fats, so you tend to crave more food later. Certain nutrients (like vitamins A, D, E, etc.) that are found in vegetables are only fat soluble, which means that your body needs some amount of fat to absorb them. The result: You are nutrient-deficient and therefore low on energy, irritable and hungry through the day. This explains the case of the homemaker mentioned above.

No additives

These are commonly used for certain juices, breads, and cereal, etc. For example, a “lightly" sweetened box of cereal can be high in sugar which is added from five different sources (such as high fructose corn syrup, honey, lactose, etc.),and can be quite low on fibre. “No additives," “natural," “lightly sweetened" are other labels to increase the confusion. Though they look good on packages, these terms aren’t regulated, so they don’t necessarily mean a particular food is better for you. Look out for terms like “sugar-free" or “no sugars", which are regulated.

In the case of breads, even multigrain, seven-grain, brown, etc., will have refined flour. In fact, all packaged breads will contain refined flour, and it will appear on the ingredient list on the packaging. Brown bread, for example, is very often caramelized sugar, just to give the refined flour a deep brown colour. What you need to look out for is “100% wholegrain" bread, for which you need to go to a bakery, not a grocery store.

The other important thing to look for in any packaged food is the serving size—the number of servings in the packet, and more importantly, how many you are going to have—and the total calories in each serving. Anything more than 400 calories per meal is high.

A quick reckoner of foods you should “put back on the rack":

•If saturated or added sugars appear among the first five ingredients.

•If the product contains hydrogenated oil or is not 100% wholegrain.

•If it says simple sugars or sucrose, glucose, maltose or high fructose corn syrup, walk away. They are nutrient-deficient, cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate and increase hunger, and are obviously bad for diabetics.

•Bleached/refined flour—you don’t want to put that in your system. Compared to complex carbohydrates, these are nutrient-deficient and also cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall sharply.

If you are not in the habit of reading food labels, now might be a good time to start. Rule of thumb: Read the list of ingredients and nutrition content on the back of the packet; everything on the front is just to distract you.

Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.

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