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Figuring out Food labels…what to eat and what not to eat?

I often see parents wanting to give a certain food to their kids as they heard that it is good for children. Lots of advertisements are there on TV on foods and supplements for children claiming that they are healthy and surprisingly most people blindly follow the advice especially if given by some celebrity.

Leave alone parents, one day my lil one asked to me give a particular brand of health drink as he heard on some cartoon channel that it contains extra calcium and is healthier than other options in the market. It took a long discussion with him to make him understand that those claims were false and finally now he understands that whatever is advertised is not true.

I wont say all products are bad, but how can you as a parent decide?

Herein comes the importance of reading food labels.

Food labels help to make healthy and safe food choices. But again there’s so much nutritional information on food labels that they can sometimes be confusing and in this fast paced world who has time to read all this.

So here’s how to read food labels and work out how healthy a food is or isn’t and make safe food choices for yourselves and your lil ones.

What are food labels? Your Cheat Sheet to Good Eats

Food labels tell you what ingredients or additives are in the food. Nutritional fact information is a part of the food label. It tells you what nutrients the food contains and how much of each nutrient is there. They also tell you about food storage and who manufactured the food and when.

Food labels are included on all food products, except for very small packets and fresh foods like fruit, vegetables and local bakery or organic products.

When you buy a packaged food product, have a look at the back of the packet instead of front. You should be able to see a box with a heading like ‘Nutritional information’.

Under the heading, you’ll see categories like:

  • Serving size
  • Energy
  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrates
  • Sugars
  • Dietary fibre
  • Sodium and so on.

Ingredients on food labels:

In most countries, food manufacturers must be truthful about their food labels. There are regulatory authorities and strict laws for the same. This is sadly not the case in India.

A food label can include only the ingredients that are in the food product and also the amount of that ingredient. For example, mango ice-cream label should show mangoes (20%) apart from other things.

All ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Therefore, ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount. So if sugar is the first ingredient it means that sugar is the main ingredient and the product is high in sugar. The ingredient listed last is present in the smallest amount. So if nothing else look at the first three ingredients. If it has something you are trying to avoid for your kid, it will be right there.

A trick that manufacturers do is combine all the grains that are included together as one, so sugar won’t be the first ingredient. Look at your cereal/bread and if it has something like grains(corn, wheat, oats), sugar is usually the very next thing.

Nutritional fact information:

All foods have to list seven food components on their nutritional information panels – energy (kilojoules), protein, total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrates, sugars and sodium. Manufacturers might decide to include other nutrients, like fibre and calcium and minerals too.

Comparing the nutritional information on different food products helps you work out the healthiest choice for your kid. Just because a food is high in vitamins doesn’t mean it’s healthy overall. Sure, it’s great that your kids favorite health drink gives them a shot of vitamins and minerals. But what if it’s also loaded with sugar?

Get your vitamins in the food that should have them like fruits and vegetables and not supplements. For a healthy product, all you need to do is see which one has lower saturated fat, lower sodium, lower sugar and higher fibre.

Things to look out for on food labels:PC: healthy kids association

  1. Serving Size:  Always start with the serving size amount. That’s because all the information on the rest of the label — from calories to vitamins — is based on that amount. Take note of how much a serving is (e.g., 1 cup). Sometimes a serving size will be way less than you’re used to eating — like only half a cup of milk. The label will also list how many servings are in the package. Even things that seem like they’d be a single serving, such as a bottle of juice or packet of chips, may contain more than one serving. If your kid eats or drinks the whole thing, they’re getting way more calories, sugar, fat, and other stuff that is unhealthy.  But when you’re comparing two products, look at the ‘per 100 gm’ information on each, rather than the ‘per serving’ information. This way you can compare the same thing on each product and select the better one.
  2. Energy
    Energy is listed on the panel as kilojoules (kj). Fats, protein and carbohydrates all provide their body with the energy or kilojoules they need to function and do their daily activities. When comparing similar foods, lower energy usually means lower saturated fat or sugar, and hence a better choice for most children.
  3. Fat, sugar and salt in disguise
    Manufacturers list fat, sugar or salt content under different names thereby meaning that these food components might be ‘hidden’ on the ingredient list. Most parents assume that since they show no sugar, fat or salt, they are good for child or at least not harming them. But these components might go by different names – whatever they’re called ( you should be able to identify  them), high content generally means the food is less healthy.   
  • Fat might also be called butter, ghee, shortening, coconut, palm oil, cream, dripping, mayonnaise, sour cream, vegetable oils and fats, hydrogenated oils, full cream milk powder, egg or mono/di/triglycerides, lard etc.
  • Sugar might be called brown sugar, fruit juice concentrate, fruit syrup, corn syrup, dextrose, disaccharides, fructose, glucose, golden syrup, honey, lactose, malt, maltose, mannitol, molasses, monosaccharides, raw sugar, sorbitol or xylitol.
  • Salt might be listed as baking powder, booster, celery salt, garlic salt, sodium, meat or yeast extract, onion salt, MSG, rock salt, sea salt, sodium bicarbonate, sodium metabisulphite, sodium nitrate, nitrate or stock cubes.                 PC: FDA

Food additives

Many foods contain food additives (can be plant derived or synthetic). All food additives must be ideally shown on the ingredients list by their name and number and whether its based on any potential allergen.

Following types of additives can be there:

  • Preservatives: help food stay fresher for longer.
  • Flavour enhancers: make the food taste better.
  • Colours: make the food look more attractive.
  • Antioxidants: used to stop fat and oil in foods from going off quickly.
  • Thickeners: can alter the thickness and feel of the food.
  • Humectants: used in bakery products to keep bread and cakes from becoming dry and stale.

A very small number of people are sensitive to some food additives, most commonly artificial colours, preservatives and flavour enhancers.

Food allergy information:

Just 8 foods cause 90% of all food allergic reactions – peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, cow’s milk, hen’s eggs, soybeans and wheat/gluten.

If these ingredients are in a food product, manufacturers must say so, no matter how small the amount. The information can be stated in a few different ways.

For example, if you’re checking a product for egg, you might see:

  • albumin (egg)
  • egg albumin
  • contains egg – at the end of the ingredients list
  • eggs – in bold type in the ingredients list.

‘May contain traces of’:
Manufacturers might include this warning if a food is made on the same equipment as, or close to, other foods that contain potential food allergens. It’s however voluntary for manufacturers to use ‘may contain’ statements.

Double-checking nutrition and health claims- Be a smart shopper

Nutrition claims on food labels and in food advertising can be confusing and misleading.

All Natural means absolutely thing nutritional wise and anything that says all natural is not regulated by law. Organic or locally sourced products actually mean something, but all natural does not.

The manufacturers can call their foods “healthy” or “low fat.” However, it’s up to you as parents to put these claims in perspective for your kids nutritional needs and eating habits. For example, “low fat” biscuits might not actually be low in fat. They’re just required to have less fat than the regular version of a particular biscuit — and that original version may be much higher in fat than other biscuits.

Let me give you an e.g about what various terminologies regarding fat content and health claims mean  (these are just some examples, will discuss in detail in next blog):

  • Free (for example, sugar free, fat free): doesn’t mean that there is no fat, just that the food contains less than ½ gram of fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, or cholesterol. Calorie-free foods contain less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Low fat: one serving contains 3 grams of fat or less.
  • Reduced (for example, reduced fat): one serving has 25% less fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, cholesterol, or calories per serving than the regular version of the food.
  • Lite or light:  30% less in at least one typical value, such as calories or fat, than standard products.
  • Oven baked, not fried: these products might still be sprayed or coated with fat before cooking, making them high fat. It’s best to check the fat content.
  • 93% fat free: this might sound good, but it means the product still has 7% fat.

These above all might contain sugar or salt in large amounts for them to salvage the taste in compensation for low fat.

The list of these terminologies is endless and sadly we as parents get fooled by them and thus the rise in obesity and other lifestyle  problems in our kids.

‘Use by’ and ‘Best before’ dates

Lastly, all foods must have a date on them that tells you when the manufacturer advises the food will either be unsafe to eat or not as good to eat. You as a parent should make it a habit to check the dates on the products you are purchasing and giving your child to eat:

  • Use by is for perishable foods like meat, fish and dairy. This is the date that tells you when a food is ‘off’.
  • Best before tells you the date when the food will still be safe to eat but might not be of the best quality anymore.
  • Baked on or packed on is the date the food was manufactured or packed. This tells you how fresh it is. You might see this on foods like bread and meat.


There is so much more information which can be had from the food labels. Just by being a bit more attentive you can decide what is healthy for your child. Will come back with another write up about the second aspect of food labels (regarding how to interpret the information given), till then try to implement above information while shopping.

Healthy eating!!

Healthy Kids, Happy kids !!

Dr Garima| themoppetsclinic 🙂

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