Processed Food & Nutrition Labeling: How to Choose Healthier Options


Processed foods get a lot of hate these days as THE culprit for making people fat. But often they are the only option available to us, especially for people who can’t cook e.g. male bachelors. We know home cooked food is better but if we are going to eat processed foods out of choice or lack of cooking skills, why not at least make better choices? The good news is that all pre-packaged foods in India come with nutrition labels like the one shown in the pic. Today, we try and explain key markers to look out in those labels so that you are able to choose healthier options. As an example, we’ll take 2 hypothetical breakfast cereals named “Cereal Eastwood” and “Wayne Chocoes”.

 

Bullet Blunders:

Before we dive into the interesting stuff, lets dodge a couple of blunders that people often make while reading labels. While comparing 2 or more products, make sure that the serving size is same for the products. In a simpler language, there’s no point comparing a product with serving size of 30 gm with a product of serving size 50 gm. Another common mistake is to make judgements according to percentage dietary values (%DV) listed on the label. Those are just suggestive values for an average man. Your nutritional needs differ with your physical activity levels, nutritional deficiencies and eating habits.

The Good:

Let’s first concentrate on the good stuff that you should aim to maximize in your choice of food. Among the most bold information listed, you can find how much protein and dietary fiber that food has. So suppose Cereal Eastwood has more protein and fiber than Wayne Chocoes and everything else looks similar, go for Cereal Eastwood.

Vitamins and minerals are another thing to pay attention to. Many processed foods add fortified micronutrients like Iron and Vitamin A and that may be another set of parameters you can compare.

The Bad:

Refined Sugar and salt content are the Big Bads of this storyline. Processed foods often add enormous amounts of both ingredients to make their products tastier and something to crave for. To take an example, Wayne Chocoes may be made of oats and thus marketed as the “healthy choice” but contains 20 gm of refined sugar while Cereal Eastwood has only 8 gm of refined sugar, which is healthier?

Reading nutrition labels can help you in identifying foods containing excessive empty calories and eventually lessen your total calorie intake for the day.

While refined sugars is stated under Carbohydrates section of the label, salt is something not directly stated on the labels but represented as Sodium (salt is basically sodium chloride; by weight, sodium is roughly 39% of salt weight). Indian diet contains typically moderate to high sodium intake so this is another marker that you should try and control. You may also be surprised to know that many sweet processed foods contain salt. Check it out before eating those delicious cookie biscuits next time.

The Ugly:

Under the Fat content section is a term listed as “Trans Fats”, not all fat is bad but trans fats are definitely something to avoid as much as possible. There is another section, Ingredients which contains all the things added to make that product including the chemicals to increase the shelf life and added flavors and colors. Suppose Cereal Eastwood has a short list and Wayne Chocoes may have a long list of alien chemicals you have never heard before, chances are that the latter contains a lot of chemicals added to it. Check the ingredients list and see for yourself how “organic” or “herbal” or “natural” your snack really is.

Misunderstood Outlaws:

We often see “zero cholesterol” and low fat labels on many products highlighted in marketed as healthy choices. Not all fats are bad and neither does eating cholesterol and naturally occurring saturated fats (like that found in milk and coconut oil) make your blood cholesterol rise up. To know more, read this excellent article with research links on Dogma about saturated fats. At the same time, it does not mean you can overeat fats. But they are not the sole culprits that popular articles and dietitians blame them to be. Also, all non animal sourced foods are cholesterol free. Marketing them as zero cholesterol is just a cheap gimmick employed by many companies to attract health conscious customers.

 

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. But this is a launchpad to take a head-start. As you become more aware of your choices, you’ll also understand why home made dahi is better and cheaper choice than a packaged “pro-biotic” yogurt and thus hopefully develop similar better eating habits in the long run. At PSI Fitness, we understand the constraints people may have in terms of available eating choices and hence we consult them accordingly instead of giving an impractical, hard to follow diet plan. To know more, call us at +91 76666 20988.

For those who understood the Western movie genre references: High five, dude!

In Lucem Scientiam

PS

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