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Connecting The Dots: A Guide To Food Labels

Posted: February 1, 2013

As the processed food industry in India grows, marketing for ‘healthy foods’ and ‘natural’ food products is ubiquitous. You need to look closer!

By Srinivas Krishnaswamy

The green dot tightly framed inside a square, displayed on product labels, prominently and proudly conveying vegetarian, is a recent phenomenon that has gone viral. It now appears in curious places like toothpaste and soaps. By contrast, products containing egg and meat are represented by the brown dot. There is a common misconception that food containing meat is represented by a red dot, although there is no such standard set by the Indian government. If you see a red dot, only the manufacturer can explain what it stands for!

These dots have been formally mandated under the Food Safety and Standard Regulations 2011, regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. These regulations specify strict and clear guidelines on the information that any food manufacturer is bound to declare on the product label. However, what about helping consumers decode all the other information on food product labels besides the dots? Beyond the vegetarian mark, any food product label has five categories of information that need decoding:

1. Ingredient listing
2. Nutritional and calorific information
3. Organic certification
4. Product claims and
5. Allergy warning information

1. Ingredient Listing

Indian law mandates that the ingredient list needs to be in descending order of contents by weight or volume. This is really useful to know when decoding product claims. For example, if a brand of bread contains whole wheat, they can advertise it as ”brown bread” or “healthier whole wheat” bread as opposed to the unhealthy wheat flour (Maida) bread. However, on checking the ingredient list you may find that the first item is Wheat flour (Maida) which means that it forms the largest part by weight of the bread.

The regulation also stipulates that if a claim is made about an ingredient, in this example, whole wheat, then the food label should also provide the actual amount of that ingredient. So with these two pieces of information the consumer can decide for themselves how brown their bread really is.

The range of legally permitted chemicals is bewildering and their number quite shocking. It raises the question, am I really eating food or debris…

The next important concept is usually found towards the end of the ingredient list where words such as “stabilizer“, “nature – identical food colour”, “ acidity-regulator” with an E-number such as “E-621” in brackets make their appearance. These are chemicals that are permitted for use in food products and form a shockingly large range. The E-number refers to an international labelling system that originated in Europe (hence E) which makes it easy to identify these chemical additives by anyone in the world. For example, E-621 stands for the flavour enhancer Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

The range of legally permitted chemicals is bewildering and their number quite shocking. It raises the question, am I really eating food or debris from a lab explosion? These chemicals with the E-numbers have come under serious scrutiny in recent times as potentially harmful for health. The debate, though not yet conclusive, serves as a reminder not to gloss over the E-numbers on any food label.

2. Nutritional and Calorific Information

Every food product label must specify nutritional information per 100 gm or 100 ml serving equivalent. The chart must cover:

a) Energy value in calories
b) Amounts of protein, carbohydrates (specific quantity of sugar) and fat in grams or ml
c) The amount of any other nutrient for which a health claim is made

The WHO reference guideline of approximately 2000 calories per day for an adult is useful to give you a perspective on the amount of calories present in any processed food item. The guideline number of 2000 is a very narrow definition that does not talk about the source of the calories. It is possible to get 2000 calories per day just from a few colas and a bag of chips, which leads to the whole debate on “empty calories”.

3. Organic Certification

Unless otherwise mentioned, every food product contains ingredients grown with the help of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The standards for organic production in India are governed by the APEDA.

When a product carries this label issued by APEDA, it means that at least 95% of the products by weight are of certifiable organic origin.

4. Product Claims

This category of food label information is  the toughest one to decode. The food safety standards issue only broad ethical guidelines that a nutritional or health claim of a product should not be false or misleading. Therefore food manufacturers are free to advertise any claim for the product that they are confident of defending under the law.

For example, any regular brand of orange juice from the supermarket would contain the following claims prominently on the label, “No preservatives, No added sugar, No added colours”, all on a lush background of images of beautiful oranges. Now, all the above claims are true but do not represent the true picture. Elsewhere on the label, away from all the action, you would find two phrases that need deeper investigation.

…food manufacturers are free to advertise any claim for the product that they are confident of defending under the law.

Firstly, all these juices are actually not fresh but “reconstituted orange juice”. Secondly, they would also contain “natural flavours”. Reconstitution is the method to ensure orange juice availability throughout the year, anywhere in the world. Freshly squeezed orange juice is pasteurized, and then evaporated to get a concentrated form of juice, which can be stored for several months and transported across the world. When water is added to this concentrated form, the juice is said to be reconstituted. Obviously due to these extreme processing methods, Vitamin-C, flavours and enzymes found in the original fresh juice are lost. This explains the addition of “natural flavours”, manufactured in a factory, to give the final flavour taste and vitamin-C levels similar to the real thing.

5. Allergy Warning Information

This is the easiest piece of the puzzle. In recent years, certain common foods such as nuts, soy, gluten (a protein commonly found in wheat) and milk are thought of as allergens. The food label should have a separate box with the information that “this product contains nuts, soy, wheat and milk”.

What is rather interesting is the fine print on products that do not contain these allergens, which can be written in two ways. One is the rather vague warning, “May contain traces of nuts, soy, wheat, milk”. This does not help a person with a known food allergy make a decision. The other variation of this is “Made in a factory that also processes nut, soy, wheat and milk”. This means that despite the best efforts, allergens could be present in the product, usually because of common containers and machines used.

Conclusion

The orange juice example above is just the tip of the iceberg of claims made by food product manufacturers. There are numerous landmines to navigate in a simple food product label. So on a cold winter morning, if you are sipping orange juice from  a carton and are despondent about making sense of the fine print on the carton, the best option is to ditch the carton, head over to the nearest organic food store and eat fresh seasonal fruit. Of course, you will not find any oranges there since it is a cold winter morning.

*Photo credit: vancanjay.

About The Author: Srinivas Krishnaswamy is the CEO & Co-founder of Krya Consumer Products. He can be reached at srinivas@krya.in

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