How To Read Nutrition Labels
My 4-step process to answering — ‘Is this healthy?’
If you’ve started on the path to fitness, chances are you do a lot of this:
Head to the grocery store, pick up healthy looking packaged foods, and spend more time trying to decipher the cluttered back-of-pack than looking at the mouth-watering imagery up front. But soon as you do, you’re met with a worthy foe — the Nutrition Label.
Read it back to front
Yes, that black and white patch of small-font words pasted obscurely behind every food you buy from a store. That goldmine of information about what this pack you’re holding actually contains. And that deliberately confusing piece of jargon-y shit that, in many cases, is designed to deceive you into believing that what you’re buying is ‘healthy’. While proof to the contrary hides there in plain sight, laughing at you from behind that sticker.
Having battled with obesity all my life, I know how confusing ‘healthy food’ can be. What makes me mad though, is the fact that this confusion is deliberate.
So here’s my attempt at giving it back to these big food corporations that obfuscate ‘health’ to profit from it. I’m opening up a new front today – attacking the very foundations of this big, corporate food-lie.
In this, the first of a 3-part series, I’ll lay out the tools you need to see through the Label. Before we learn how to call-out their fat-free, no-sugar-added lies, we must first learn the rules of the nutrition label game. Once we know the basics, the trickery will become self-evident.
So let’s start the way you would. By heading to the grocery store, picking up something that looks healthy, and turning it around.
To research for this post, I went to the local Nature’s Basket (premium grocery store) and starting picking healthy-looking alternatives for regular, everyday food.
The first thing I picked was this pack of ‘digestive-fibre’ biscuits that my parents have with tea. They (like may of us) have been having 1 or 2 biscuits with their chai for ages. Recently though, they shifted from the unhealthy Good-Day biscuit to this high-fibre, supposedly healthy alternative:
Looks healthy right? Zoom-in.
That’s a relatively clutter-free, simple-looking nutrition chart. Looks quite harmless. But how do you figure out if it really is a healthy option.
Well, I’ve battled with this for over a decade, so follow me please. Here’s my 4-step process to decoding the Label.
Step 1: How many calories?
If you’re on a weight-loss diet, then the first place you need to look is that last row.
Energy: 493 kcal / 100gm.
Don’t be drawn towards any other macro-nutrient at this time. It doesn’t matter if this thing you are holding is protein-rich or fat-free. Your first concern should be — “How many calories will I be putting into my body if I eat this?”. A question that this nutrition label is designed NOT to answer. But we shall.
A little Math
So this box is 250gm. And there are 15 biscuits in this box. That’s about 17gm/ piece.
This is the first thing you need to calculate. You need to know how many calories one unit of this food contains. One unit might mean one piece, one teaspoon, one glass, one shot, one cube — anything.
For example, my dad always has 2 of these biscuits with every cup of tea while mom has ony 1. And they drink tea atleast twice a day. That’s 4 biscuits everyday for dad.
Now we know 1 biscuit is 17gm. So dad has about 70gms of these biscuits everyday. That’s 493*70/100 = 345 calories.
If your weight-loss diet allows you 1700 calories a day, then that is over 20% of your quota. And I’m not even counting the calories in the tea you had them with. You feel me!
So basis this one criteria alone, you should keep that pack back. You just can’t afford the calories!
But what if all those are ‘good calories’? What if it’s all protein and fibre and good fats?
Ok, let’s look at what makes up these 493 calories?
Step 2: How much carb? How much of it sugar?
The next thing to look for is carbohydrates, and how much of those are pure, added sugar. (Oh did I mention, sugar is pure simple carbohydrate. It makes you fat, but unlike what many believe, it isn’t classified as Fat). And then see what % of the total calories come from this 1 Macro.
In this case, there are 68gm carbs. That’s 68*4=262 calories. That’s more than half of the total calories in this food! Out of which almost a fourth come from added sugars. I’d ask you to drop this pack like a hot potato at this point — but it’d be disrespectful to the potato — who’s a lot healthier than this shit.
Step 3: How much fat? How much of it saturated?
But maybe there is still hope. What if the remaining 50% is protein? Or atleast ‘good fats’?
Sure, let’s test that too. Go back to the image — there’s 21g of Fat/ 100g. That’s 180kcal. So the next 40% of calories are coming from Fat (half of which is saturated Fat).
Less than 10% of the calories come from protein. So these biscuits are:
55% Carb (15% Sugar); 38% Fat (20% Saturated); 8% Protein
No wonder these high-fibre things help you with taking a shit. That’s what they are!
Step 4: Beware of Deception
Now that you’ve started seeing the building blocks of this nutrition-obfuscation, let me alert you to a few other shady tactics that packaged goods use to mislead you.
Using the principles we’ve discussed, let’s see how healthy this famous summer drink is:
Just laughter and sunshine and sugar
Let’s start with Step 1.
This drink has about 50 calories per 100ml. But since you’ll most probably consume this entire 200ml pack in one go, the more relevant figure is 100kcal per pack. Which doesn’t sound too bad from a calorie quota perspective. But what are these calories made of? Is it nutrition or shit?
Let’s apply Step 2.
Well, the answer is pretty apparent in that label. This drink has NOTHING but SUGAR!
20gms of sugar in one pack. That’s about 4 teaspoons of sugar! Imagine stuffing those into your mouth. Can’t? Good. Throw this away and run in the opposite direction. It’s a ticking, fucking, bomb.
More importantly, the lesson to learn is about Serving Size. Manufacturers are obligated to just put ‘per 100ml’ information on the label. But you consume every food differently.
My dad eats 2 biscuits with tea. Mom eats just 1. A few pieces of biscuits, a few spoons of nutella, an entire pack of juice, a small piece of butter, 2 slices of bread, 3 cubes of chocolate — those are your serving sizes. And they’re different for us all.
And that’s what allows manufacturers to get away with selling sugar packaged as childhood-drink. Calories/100ml in a drink, or per 100gm in a bar of chocolate mean NOTHING. But we never make the effort to calculate our serving size and this information remains hidden in plain sight.
2.Cal, kCal and kJ
First up, in the nutrition label world
1 kcal = kilocalorie = 1 calorie. 1 kilo calorie isn’t = 1000 calories!
If you recall 6th standard physics, A kilocalorie is ‘the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water by one degree Celsius’. More importantly, in nutrition label terms, 1 calorie = 1kcal. It’s just a stupid difference in the American and European way. So don’t get confused if you pick up an American label and find cal instead of kcal. Same thing.
The bigger problem though is kJ. Or Kilojoule. Checkout the salad dressing below:
100 kj per 16ml serve! Wow – So much for a healthy salad.
Well, before you panic, again recall 6th std Physics.
1kcal = 4.2kj.
So per serve, this sauce actually has just under 23kcal. That sounds much better now doesn’t it! So next time you’re buying something from a fancy store that has imported products, remember the kj to kcal conversion, before you go about judging the food.
That’s % Daily intake. Or %RDA (Recomended Dietary Allowance). Which is a gross generalisation of the calories and the nutrient composition needed by an average adult. But your needs, depending on your fitness-goal, might be completely different.
So don’t get happy that this one health-drink serves 20% of your protein requirement. It does less than half of that, if you’re trying to gain muscle. But that won’t stop the marketeers from using this as a BIG claim on pack.
Nop. This isn’t 20% of your protein requirement.
There. That’s my simple 4-step toolkit.
15 years ago, when I first turned a pack to see what goes into it, I remember being thoroughly confused. What should I look for? What should I judge by? Calories, or fat, or good fat, or sugar, or total carb? Should I buy something that’s high in protein, even though it has a ton of sugar too? Or should I just go for low calorie food irrespective of the nutrient profile.
It’s taken me 15 years to boil it down to this 4-step process. Go on, try it out for this week. Next week, I’ll take a few popular, ‘healthy’ food items, and bust the deceptive marketing behind them.
This is war.
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