Commonly referred to as the nutrition facts label or the nutrition information panel, this table describes the nutrient content of a food and is intended to guide the consumer in food selection
By Nadiya Merchant
Picture this: You go grocery shopping as the festive season is in full throttle and you need to keep your kitchen well-stocked. So yes , you take your shopping list out and make your way through the aisles looking for the products you want. You come across the shelf and see different varieties of the same product with a similar value proposition. You are bewildered and don’t know which product to go for. In such a scenario, how do you even decide on your purchase? This is where a nutrition facts table typically on the backside of the pack helps you decide.
Commonly referred to as the nutrition facts label or the nutrition information panel, this table describes the nutrient content of a food and is intended to guide the consumer in food selection. It is a nutrition declaration required by law or implemented voluntarily by manufacturers. Different countries have their own regulations and the food label needs to meet the conditions laid down by their respective regulatory bodies.
Why is reading nutrition labels important?
The benefits are manifold. Primarily it helps you to understand what nutrients you are getting and it is important if you have health conditions or are following a particular kind of diet.
How does a nutrition facts label help you?
Here are some quick benefits of knowing how to decode a nutrition facts label:
It states the energy/ calories and nutrients that the food provides thus helping you make an informed choice while choosing the food item
It may provide information on the serving size
The information provided makes it easy for you to compare foods
It helps in the selection of foods for special diets
Nutrition Facts Label: How to choose correctly
Now that you know what a nutrition facts label is, the following steps will help you have a better understanding of its components and what you should infer out of each while choosing a particular packaged food item.
Serving size: Start with checking the label to see whether the nutrition information or nutrition facts are given per 100 g or 100 ml or per serving. The serving size is usually mentioned at the top of the Nutrition Facts table in grams or ml or measures such as cup, glass etc. Based on the serving size, one is able to understand the amount of nutrients that the serving will provide.
Check out the calories: Understand the calories that a single serving of the food provides. It is important to keep calories in check for maintaining a healthy body weight. Energy is measured in calories (kcal) or joules (kJ). The body requires energy and it is important to keep a check on the calorie intake. Excess caloric intake may lead to weight gain. According to The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), an adult sedentary woman needs 1900 kcal and an adult sedentary man needs 2320 kcal per day.
Fight the fat: Fat has twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein. While we do need some fat in our diet, excess fat consumption may lead to weight gain. You can gauge the amount and type of fat you would be consuming by opting for a particular product through these labels.
Protein punch: Look for the amounts of protein. Protein is the building block of our body. Protein is important for the maintenance of muscle mass as well as for normal bones. The daily protein requirements for an adult man and woman are 60 g and 55 g respectively (ICMR, 2010).
Fuel up: Carbohydrate is the main fuel for the body. There are two main types of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates like starch and simple carbohydrates like sugars. Grains (cereals and pulses/ legumes), fruits and vegetables all contain complex carbohydrates. Many foods have a mix of carbohydrates; for example, fruit contains natural fruit sugar (fructose, a simple carb) as well as dietary fibre (complex carb). Sugar can be naturally present in foods, while other times it may be added to the food to provide taste, colour or texture. Added sugars can be a part of a balanced diet.
Fibre check: Check for fibre. Whole grains in the food may add to the fibre content. ICMR suggests a daily intake of 25 – 40 g of fibre. Fibre has numerous health benefits – lowering risk of non-communicable diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity etc., normalising bowel movements, cholesterol reduction to mention a few. So try including more of fibre containing foods in the diet
Nutrient presence: Look for additional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. These are required in small amounts but play a vital role in growth and development. Foods like ready-to-eat cereals are generally enriched with Vitamins B complex, C, iron, calcium etc.
% RDA: The % RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) tells you the percent of the daily requirement of that particular nutrient that the serving of the food provides. ICMR has prescribed RDAs for energy and nutrients according to gender, level of physical activity and age for children.
Nutrition terms/Claims on the packaging: Very often, we find claim statements on the packs. If you want to increase the intake of certain nutrients in the diet, look for words like high, good source, rich etc. on the pack label. On the other hand, if you want to decrease the amount of certain nutrients look for the words free, low or reduced on the packaging.
So what are you waiting for? Just grab your grocery bags and indulge in some healthy and smart food shopping!
(The author is Lead – Nutrition & Scientific Affairs, Kellogg South Asia. Views expressed are the author’s own.)