Reading Food Labels & Decoding Nutritional Tables: Your Go-To Guide Day 3: Reading Food Labels & Decoding Nutritional Tables

Reading Food Labels & Decoding Nutritional Tables: Your Go-To Guide

Choosing the right foods for our babies is a critical aspect of parenthood, yet it's fraught with confusion and marketing tactics, especially when we walk down the aisles of local supermarkets or grocery shopping apps.

Food labels often read like a cryptic code, leaving parents bewildered by the choices before them. We certainly can't ignore the overly influential power of marketing campaigns that companies use to coax Indian consumers into buying pricier items (example, digestive biscuits), which we presume to be healthier than their cheaper counterparts.

However, when you strip away all the glamor of advertising and packaging design, there’s a disconcerting truth. Most of these healthy foods that claim to be whole wheat, multigrain, or high fiber do in fact contain maida or refined wheat flour. That’s why it’s essential to know how to read food labels and be aware about what to look for, to ensure the health and well-being of our little ones!

Guidelines & Regulations in India

A study conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition in India, spanning five major cities, showed that consumers only focus on recognized brands and expiry dates of products, frequently overlooking the nutritional information on product labels. That’s why Slurrp It Up decided to dedicate one entire article to creating awareness on this important matter. As parents, we all are determined to make only the best choices for our babies. 

In India, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is responsible for regulating food labels. Their guidelines mandate that every packaged food item must prominently display critical information, including the manufacturer's details, ingredients, net quantity, manufacturing and expiry dates, and nutritional information.

Below is a diagram of a food label with indicators pointing out the essential information we will be discussing in this article.

Making Informed Choices as Parents

In an ideal world, we would like to make homemade food for our babies from scratch every day. However, the modern world and the lack of time compel parents to buy baby snacks and ready-to-eat foods for the sake of convenience. In such instances, it’s important to distinguish between products suitable for these scenarios and those we should still avoid, even if it's only on occasion.

Many baby and toddler products available in the market often stray from dietary guidelines for these age groups; they tend to contain excessive sugar and sodium levels that are not suitable for babies under 1 year. As a parent, how can you discern whether a product truly aligns with your baby's well-being? The key is to look beyond attractive images and catchy taglines, and simply flip that package over to read the nutrition label!

By making well-informed choices, we exert influence over companies to develop better, healthier products for our kids. As parents, when we prioritize our children's well-being through responsible choices, we set an example for other parents and families too.

This article hopes to break down the mystery behind food labels, so parents will no longer be daunted by it but feel empowered by the knowledge they need!

How to Read Food Labels

When you look at food labels, you'll notice two main things. 

Part 1: Ingredients List: This tells you exactly what's inside the product, what it's made of.

Part 2:Nutrition Label: It's a table that shows how much energy (or calories), protein, carbs, fat, etc. is in the packaged food. This helps you understand what your baby would get from eating it.

Part 1: Ingredients List

Let's delve into the world of ingredient lists and what they reveal about the food product you're considering

1) Where to Find the Ingredient List

You'll typically find the ingredient list on the back of the product, and sometimes it's also on the side of the packaging. Occasionally, it's placed below the nutrition label, but wherever it's located, you can always count on it being there.

2) Look at the Main Ingredient

When you scan the ingredient list, pay close attention to the order in which the ingredients are listed. They're arranged based on the quantity present in the product. The first ingredient is usually the one found in the highest amount. 

 

For example, if you're looking at "sprouted ragi porridge," you'd expect the first ingredient to be "sprouted ragi." Next, check if the ingredient list aligns with the product's name. In the case of sprouted ragi porridge, you'd ideally want to see "100% sprouted ragi porridge" without unnecessary additives or sweeteners.

3) Check the Supporting Ingredients

Occasionally, you might spot supporting ingredients like cardamom, but these are typically present in smaller quantities. Some products claim to contain vegetables or fruits, but they use vegetable or fruit powders. You can verify this in the ingredient list. For instance, if the product claims to have beetroot but the ingredient list states "beetroot powder," it contributes less nutritionally compared to using whole beetroot.

4) Look at the First Three Ingredients

Take a close look at the first three ingredients. If any of them include sugar, wheat flour, refined wheat flour (Maida), or certain types of oils, be cautious. Such products may be high in sugar, unhealthy carbs, or unhealthy fats, particularly if sugar is listed as an ingredient.

5) Sugar Substitutes

Steer clear of sugar substitutes, even if a product claims to have "no added sugar." Some products use sweeteners like fruit juice concentrate, fruit purees, date powder, banana powder, or jaggery. Ingredients like date powders are healthier substitutes for sugar, but it’s not advised for babies under 1 year.

6) Hidden Sugars

Keep an eye out for alternative names for sugar, such as high fructose corn syrup or dextrose, which are the worst kind of hidden sugars. These are not suitable for babies under 12 months.

7) Steer Clear of Hydrogenated Oils

Avoid products that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are unhealthy and unsuitable for babies.

8) Analyze Multigrain Claims

If a product boasts being "multigrain," inspect the ingredient list to see how much of those grains are actually present. Make sure it matches the product's claims. Focus on foods that include ingredients you'd use at home, like whole grains, whole wheat, millets, oats, whole fruits, whole vegetables, and beans.

9) Check Sodium Content

Check the sodium quantity to ensure there's no unnecessary salt added. Babies don't need extra salt in their diet, especially those under 1 year.

10) Avoid Maida (Refined Wheat Flour)

Watch for ingredients like "wheat flour," which often means refined wheat flour or Maida. If whole wheat flour is used, it should specifically say "whole wheat flour."

Part 2: Nutritional Table

Here’s a sample diagram of how nutritional tables appear and what contents they reveal. Read on for a better understanding…

1) Nutritional Claims

Be wary of nutrition and health claims on packaging. These claims are marketing tools and may not reflect the actual nutrient content. Some products claim to be “high in iron,” “great source of fiber,” etc. But, there are specific guidelines that dictate how much of a particular nutrient a product must contain to make these claims.

 

For example, upon scrutinizing the nutrition label of a product that is "iron-rich," you may discover that it contains less than 2% of the recommended iron intake. In essence, it provides very little iron!

 

These claims can be somewhat deceptive, as their primary aim is to make products more appealing to consumers. So, don't base your purchasing decisions solely on these claims. In reality, if your child maintains a healthy, well-balanced diet with a variety of foods, these claims may not significantly impact their nutrition.

 

You may come across claims like "whole grains" or "multigrain." In such cases, inspect the nutrition label closely. The actual quantity of whole grains may be as low as 10% to 15%, with the rest often composed of wheat flour or refined wheat flour.

 

Some products may say they’re "low fat." Babies don't require low-fat or skimmed products, as they need an ample amount of fat for their growth and development. Also, low fat doesn't necessarily equate to low calories. 

 

If you see claims like "high fiber," "high protein," or "high calcium," refer to the exact values in the nutrition table. Some products may boast high fiber content, but the serving size might contain only 1 to 3 grams of fiber at most. Therefore, be vigilant when making informed choices for your child's nutrition.

2) Actual Sugar Content

Sugar is a hot topic of discussion nowadays, and there's often confusion when scrutinizing nutrition labels. Does it contain sugar or not? This confusion is because current guidelines encompass both free sugars and naturally occurring sugars in the "sugar" label, provided the food contains no added sugars.

 

When sugar originates from sources like fruit puree, it's simply labeled as "sugar" without the distinction of "added sugar" or "natural sugar." Consider flavored yogurt or curd. These products are marketed as strawberry-flavored yogurt or strawberry-flavor curd. However, a closer examination of the ingredient label might reveal significantly higher sugar content compared to plain curd. This additional sugar usually comes from flavorings or fruit additions, but manufacturers state that it originates from the fruit.

 

Ideally, avoid such products for babies. Instead, opt for plain curd and add fruit at home. This is a much healthier alternative to flavored yogurts.

3) Serving Size

A serving size is the recommended portion set by the manufacturer, and it's typically the starting point on the label. However, serving sizes are determined by the manufacturers themselves, and they don't always align with what people actually consume. In fact, sometimes these suggested portions may not even be realistic.

 

For example, a label shows a serving size as one tablespoon, but in reality, when you or your baby enjoy the product, your little one might end up consuming half the package. This is where you have to be mindful. Consider a product weighing about 200 grams, with a serving size listed as 30 grams. Parents should envision how this portion size matches what their child will realistically eat. Is it a practical serving size for your little one?

 

Take, for example, food pouches that state a serving size of 50 grams, which could be just half the pouch. However, as your baby begins to enjoy the pouch, they might devour the entire contents. In such cases, it's essential to gauge how much salt or sugar your baby is truly consuming per serving.

 

When it comes to superfoods or products not specifically designed for babies, you'll often find serving sizes tailored for adults. For instance, items like sprouted bread, intended for a mature palate, may mention serving sizes meant for adults. In such situations, it's advisable to adjust these serving sizes for your baby. Typically, roughly half of the indicated adult serving size may be suitable for babies.

4) 100 Gram Column

Some products may display a "100-gram" column, while others include both the "100-gram" and "per serving" columns side by side.

 

The "per 100 grams" column provides a percentage of nutrients within the product. For example, if you spot a "70 g carbohydrate" in the 100-gram column, it means this product is 70% carbohydrates. Likewise, if it's labeled as "70 g sugar," it indicates that 70% of the product is sugar.

 

It's vital to examine this 100-gram column for salt and sugar content. For babies, the recommended daily salt intake is less than 1 gram; there's no recommended value for sugar intake under 12 months. But, if salt or sugar is present in the product, it's advisable to avoid.

 

While the “sodium” content may not explicitly state the grams of salt, it mentions "sodium per serving" or "sodium per 100 grams." In India, sodium regulations aren't very stringent, and many brands skip mentioning it. However, for products that do specify sodium content, if it exceeds 150, it's considered somewhat high. If it surpasses 200 milligrams per serving, it's likely very high. In such cases, aim for products with lower sodium content to make healthier choices.

5) Calories per Serving

Watch out for “calories per serving” especially in products like baby puffs.

 

A label may state that 100 grams of the product contains 400 calories. However, the actual serving size for this product could be as small as 7 grams, equivalent to half a cup. In reality, this means that 7 grams of the product provides only around 25 to 30 calories at most. While such products may fill up your baby, they may lack essential nutrients required for their growth and development.

 

It's essential to bear in mind that adults and babies have vastly different nutritional needs. While adults may consider low-fat or low-calorie products, these criteria don't necessarily apply to babies. Babies' nutritional requirements can vary widely, and each baby may have unique needs based on their stage of development.

 

Therefore, when evaluating calorie content, keep in mind that what suits adults might not be suitable for your baby. Pay attention to products that not only fill your baby's tummy but also provide the necessary nutrients for their healthy growth.

6) Fats

Examine the total fats and saturated fats. Avoid products with trans fats, often derived from partially hydrogenated oils, as they can be unhealthy for babies.

7) Vitamins & Minerals

Some products list proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Minerals could include minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, iodine, zinc, and folate. Aim for products with adequate protein and essential nutrients for your baby's growth.

 

Products providing at least 20% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for specific nutrients are considered good.

8) Allergen Information

Check for allergen information, often highlighted in bold. Be cautious if the product or the facility where it's processed handles allergens that your baby is sensitive to.

9) Organic Claims

Another common claim on food products is the "organic" label. Labels will use various words like “natural,” “organic,” or “preservative-free,” giving us the impression that we’re making a healthy choice. Merely placing "organic" on a product doesn't automatically make it a healthy option.

 

When a product claims to be organic, it means it hasn't been exposed to commercial fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, or any synthetic additives during its production. Keep an eye out for this logo, as it signifies a commitment to organic practices and can guide you toward making healthier choices for your child's nutrition.

 

To ensure the authenticity of foods labeled as organic, the FSSAI introduced an initiative called “Jaivik Bharat.” There’s also a dedicated portal that lists products that have successfully met the organic guidelines. Look out for this “Jaivik Bharat” logo on product packaging, which officially approves that product as “organic.”

10) Better Choices Overall

Our mission extends beyond safeguarding our children; we're also dedicated to protecting the planet we call home. We highly recommend buying products that have the "recyclable" packaging. This label indicates whether the packaging can be recycled or not. Keep an eye out for this symbol as you make your choices.

11) Other Tips

Look at the date of manufacture, expiry date, and best-before date to ensure freshness and safety. Consume foods before the best-before or expiry date to guarantee their quality. Pay attention to any usage instructions, storage guidelines, and warning labels on the packaging, particularly if it pertains to choking hazards or age appropriateness. 

 

Remember that babies' nutritional requirements differ from adults, and individual babies may have unique needs. Making informed choices based on nutrition labels empowers you to select foods that support your baby's health and development effectively.