There is a reason why there is a nutrition food label on every packaged food item. It’s supposed to help you easily understand which food item is nutritious and which is not. But food labels tend to be more confusing than easy. That might be one of the reasons most of us don’t bother reading what’s written on a packet of chips, or biscuits, a sweetened yogurt cup or even an ice-cream. But reading the label is important, especially if you are shopping for kids or adults in the family who have certain ailments.

Here is a quick guide to understanding what food labels tell you.

What is a food label? What should your pre-packaged food label include?

Food labels are descriptors on a package, representing detailed information about the food product. It serves as a means of communication between the manufacturers and the consumers and is crucial for shaping purchasing decisions. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is the Indian government body that regulates and sets the standards for different foods and their packaging and labelling. This is done to ensure uniformity and compliance across all edible products in India.

Your packaged food should include the following details:

  • The name of the food - This should be indicative of the food contained inside the package.
  • Ingredient list - It refers to the ingredients that have been utilized to make the food product. They are expected to be listed in descending order as per their weight. If certain ingredients are emphasised on the pack, their percentage compositions should also be declared.
  • Nutritional information- This is an important part of the label as it allows consumers to make healthier choices. It indicates the nutritive value of the food product in terms of calories, and mentions fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, sugar, protein and also sodium, micronutrients, fibre etc.
  • Declaration regarding vegetarian or non-vegetarian - A consumer can easily identify whether the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian by looking at the sign (dot) on the pack. A green dot indicates that the product is vegetarian and a red dot indicates that it is non-vegetarian. This declaration is mandatory.
  • Declaration regarding food additives- An additive is a substance added to food products for preservation, or to enhance flavour and appearance. And this should be mentioned on the pack.
  • Serving size - A serving size on the pack represents the portion that is to be ideally consumed per occasion.
  • Name and complete address of the manufacturer - These details need to be furnished on the pack too. Without the declaration of the same, the product might not be considered genuine in the market.
  • Allergen declaration- A list of food agents that can trigger allergies should also be mentioned on the label – for example nuts, wheat, milk, soy, and eggs.
  • Net quantity- It refers to the approximate weight or volume of the finished product.
  • Lot/Code/Batch number- This is an identification mark by which the food can be traced in the manufacturing process and identified during distribution.
  • Date of manufacture - The date, month and year in which the food item has been manufactured will be declared on the pack.
  • Best before and use by date- This indicates the date till which the edible is safe for consumption.
  • Country of origin- If the product has been imported by India, the country from where it originates has to be declared on the pack.
  • Storage conditions- The conditions under which the product requires to be stored have to be mentioned on the pack.
  • Instructions of use - Guidelines on how to effectively utilize the product should be included on the pack.

Why should you read food labels before buying pre-packaged foods?

Food-labelling is an important aspect of good manufacturing practice. And ensuring the safety of the food is a shared responsibility of the government, food manufacturers and the consumers. It is a way in which you, as a consumer, get to know about the food you are purchasing. By appropriately reading the information provided on labels (such as expiry dates, handling instructions and allergy warnings) you can prevent unnecessary food-borne illnesses and allergic reactions.

Reading the label helps you to make healthier and informed decisions, as well as purchase food that offers appropriate nutritional value for your family. The ingredient listing and allergen declaration on the pack convey about the elements that have been used to create the product, and are important information for people with food allergies, religious restrictions, and health problems. The serving size indicated makes you conscious of the portion to be typically consumed per occasion and helps to limit foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. The storage condition and best-before/use-by information help to reduce food wastage by allowing consumers to store food appropriately and use within the time frame as indicated on the pack.

Tips to decode food labels: Make them work for you

Decoding food labels can be tricky especially if you want to include packaged foods into your schedule in a healthy manner. Here are some tips and tricks that can help make food product labels work for you!

  • Study the list of ingredients carefully - Ingredients are arranged in descending order by weights, and therefore, scan the first three to get an understanding of the product and its value addition to your diet. For instance, if the first few ingredients include refined grains, sugars, hydrogenated fats, you can consider it as a relatively unhealthy food which is alright when consumed in moderation.
  • Keep a check on the allergen advice on the pack.
  • Serve size matters - Portion sizes give an indication of the typical consumption per occasion and the calories provided. This can be a useful guide for eating right. You can find this on the top of the label wherein the size of a single serving and the total number of servings per container or packet is mentioned.
  • Count the calories- The calories section of the label gives a sneak peek into the total calories as well as the calories obtained from fat, per serving of the food. Remember, calories are the amount of energy you get from eating a serving of that food item.
  • Hunt down fats - Check a food label for both good and bad fats. Check the saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol contents of the food as they are detrimental to health if consumed in excess. For a healthy diet, cholesterol and saturated fat should be as low as possible, and trans fat should be nil. Try to avoid foods with words like "partially hydrogenated oils" on their labels. Look for foods containing healthy fats, such as sunflower, canola, and olive oils.
  • Look out for added sugars- Added sugars contain almost no nutrients and provide only simple carbohydrates. Over-consumption of sugar fills you up with empty calories and keeps you from eating healthy, and also does not allow your body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Check out the salt/ sodium content as high sodium intake is harmful for your health.
  • You can also keep an eye on added nutrients such as fibre, probiotics, and micronutrients. Nutrients that are good for you are protein, dietary fibre, vitamins, and minerals. These are nutrients that you need every day. For example, calcium can keep bones and teeth strong and fibre promotes good bowel movement.
  • The % RDA panel: The footnote of every food label mentions the percent recommended dietary allowance (% RDA). The values indicate the amount of each nutrient recommended for individuals every day. There are 2 aspects to remember here:
    1. When a nutrient has 5% of the RDA or less, then the product is low in that nutrient.
    2. When a nutrient has 20% or more of the RDA, then the product is high in that nutrient.

So, how does this help, you ask? Percent RDA makes your life easy when it comes to choosing the best when you’re comparing nutrients of the same products offered by different brands.

All in all, understanding and knowing how to read food labels is essential as it helps in making informed choices. So go on and start decoding those labels now.

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