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

Food labels often read like a cryptic code, leaving parents confused and worried! Marketing and ad campaigns are very influential in promoting premium products and brands positioned as being “healthier.” Most healthy foods which claim to be whole wheat, multigrain, or high fiber do in fact contain maida or refined wheat flour. That’s why knowing how to read food labels and being aware about what to look for is necessary for the 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. But, today, due to lack of time, parents buy baby snacks and ready-to-eat foods as they’re more convenient. Many baby and toddler products available in the market often don’t follow dietary guidelines for these age groups; they may have excessive sugar or salt, which are not suitable for babies under 1 year. 

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 food. 

Part 1: Ingredients List

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) 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.

4) 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.  

5) Steer Clear of Hydrogenated Oils

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

6) 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.

7) 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.

8) 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.

1) Nutritional Claims

There are specific guidelines that say how much of a particular nutrient a product must contain. For example, when you analyze the nutrition label of a product that claims to be "iron-rich," you may see that it contains less than 2% of the recommended iron intake.

If you read "whole grains" or "multigrain," inspect the nutrition label properly. The actual quantity of whole grains may be as low as 10%, and the rest is made up of wheat/refined wheat flour (maida). Some products say they’re "low fat." But babies don't need low-fat or skimmed products. 

If you see "high fiber," "high protein," or "high calcium," check the exact values in the nutrition table.

2) Serving Size

A serving size is the recommended portion set by the manufacturer, and it's typically the starting point on the label. These serving sizes are decided by the manufacturers themselves; they don't always align with what people actually consume.

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.

Babies' nutritional requirements can vary widely, and each baby may have unique needs based on their stage of development. So, when evaluating calorie content, remember that what suits adults might not be suitable for babies.

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

Labels may use words like “natural,” “organic,” or “preservative-free.” Just using "organic" on a product doesn't make it a healthy option. A truly organic product isn’t exposed to commercial fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, or additives.

To ensure the authenticity of foods labeled as organic, the FSSAI introduced an initiative called “Jaivik Bharat.” Look out for this “Jaivik Bharat” logo on products, which means they’re officially “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. Check 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.