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Are food labels helping or wrecking your diet?

14,September, 2016
 

Don’t look just for food label instructions such as sugar-free, low calorie etc but also for the nutritive value in them.

Choosing a healthy snack at a supermarket or grocery store has become as tough as voting in a dependable political candidate. In India, food labels appear to be designed to mislead consumers by providing information in ways that confuse rather than help shoppers choose healthier products, eat smaller portions and get more active.

Most people think they are on the right track as long as they choose foods that are sugar free, low cal, low fat, low cholesterol, low starch, skimmed, toned, double-toned, baked not fried etc and end up choosing foods with no nutritive value or foods low in one unhealthy ingredient but high in others.

Supermarket shelves are packed with examples of misleading claims. Sugar and wholewheat flour are mixed with artificial additives to make ‘high-fibre’ cookies, juice labelled ‘with no added sugar’ may have other equally harmful sweeteners such as fructose, dextrose, dextrine and high fructose corn syrup, ‘healthy’ fruit yoghurts are loaded with sugar and preservatives, and oils labelled ‘cholesterol-free’ and ‘heart-friendly’ may have other fats that block up arteries just as efficiently as cholesterol.

In India, most packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging that includes information on energy in kilocalories (kcal) — popularly referred to as calories — fat, saturated fat, sugar, salt, carbohydrates, protein and essential vitamins and minerals in either 100 grams and sometimes per portion of the food. It’s vital for consumers to take a close look at the portion size, as foods high in calories may be listed.

With people spending six seconds looking at a food package before deciding what to buy, the best labels are those that provide basic information at a glance. Symbols work better than numerical information, with activity-equivalent calorie labels being the most easily understood by all, particularly by lower socioeconomic groups who often lack nutritional knowledge and health literacy, reported a study in Nutrition Reviews. The study recommends nutrition labels use text and symbolic colour to indicate nutrient levels rather than nutrient-specific labels with numeric information, as done in India.

Simple colour coding to share nutrition information is increasingly getting popular.

Simple colour coding to share nutrition information is increasingly getting popular. Studies have shown that ‘traffic light labels’ used in the Australia, New Zealand, UK and Sri Lanka have helped change eating and drinking behaviour. These labels are designed to give independent scientific dietary advice to help people make healthier food choices quickly and easily. Green, amber or red coloured labels in the front of the pack show at a glance if the food shoppers are thinking about buying has low, medium or high amounts of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt. Red indicates that the food is high in fat, sugars or salt and should be eaten occasionally or in small amounts. Amber indicates it’s an okay choice and green certifies it as a healthier choice.

If a food package has all three colours – different for saturated fat, fats, sugar and salt – people are advised to pick products with more greens and ambers and fewer reds. If two products have similar colours, comparing the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugars and salt in a portion and choosing the one which has lower values helps you make a balanced choice.

People can use colour-coding to judge how healthy is the amount of fat, sugar and salt listed in the nutrition label of whatever they are eating or drinking. On display is a UK shopping card.

Chuffed with the success of traffic light labelling in the UK, the Royal Society for Public Health has called for introducing ’activity equivalent’ calorie labelling, with symbols showing how many minutes of several different physical activities is needed to expend the calories in the product. For example, the calories in a can of fizzy drink would take a person of average age and weight about 26 minutes to walk off. Given its simplicity, activity equivalent calorie labelling offers a recognisable reference that is understood by everyone, write researchers in the BMJ.

The aim is to make people more mindful of the calories they end up eating and how these calories relate to activities in their everyday lives. The message, say researchers, is more positive because instead of asking people to cut down on specific foods or drink, activity labelling encourages people to do something to counter their dietary choices.

You can’t out-run a bad diet, just as you can’t build lean muscle on empty calories that lack the foundation of a healthy diet – high on vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans, fish, wholegrain and legumes and low in sugar, saturated fats, dairy, starch and meats. Each one of us needs to create a balanced relationship between the calories consumed and the calories expended to stay healthy.

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