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How to decode the labels on processed foods

This is how food labels trick you into unhealthy eating

By Salva Mubarak  July 18th, 2017

Processed food is bad for you. “But, surely not all…” No. All processed food is bad for you, unless it’s consumed minimally. Tripti Gupta, nutritionist to supermodels and Bollywood celebrities, including Kangana Ranaut, will readily back our claim. “Processed food is a big risk to your health in a long run,” she insists, adding that it’s best to be aware of what we’re putting into our bodies in the name of food. And that’s how we arrive at the topic du jour: The importance of understanding what’s on your food label.

“When you’re buying packaged food or anything processed, the first thing you need to look out for is the amount of preservatives, substitutes and colours that have been added to it,” says Tripti, “You would never know the right measure, because it will never be specified.”

There are some additives in processed foods that are more harmful than the others. Often food manufacturers try to sneak those in using ambiguous names. But that doesn’t mean you have to be fooled into consuming them. While it’s always best to consult a certified expert in case you’re unsure about an ingredient mentioned on the package, we can help you figure out the basics. 

Important things to look out for on your processed food label

Fats and oils

A nutritionist expert from Harvard perfectly summarized what trans fats really are, “the biggest food-processing disaster in history”. They are twice as dangerous for your heart as saturated fats and have been known to boost cholesterol levels. They also raise levels of artery-clogging lipoprotein (an important marker in the risk of developing heart disease) and triglycerides (fat in blood that is stored as sources of energy, but increased amounts are hazardous for your heart). Lard, margarine and fats that have gone through shortening are bad for you.

While they are clearly specified on most labels, sometimes they are sneakily referred to as ‘partially hydrogenated’, ‘fractionated’ or ‘hydrogenated’. Fully hydrogenated fats are usually not a threat, but sometimes trans fats are mislabeled as hydrogenated and that can be a problem. “What we want is pure oil,” says Tripti. Opt for groundnut, mustard or olive oil to reduce health risk. 


The liberal amount of salt used in processed foods is another villain. "After oil and sugar, it’s salt that you should look out for,” warns Tripti. Most of the salt in our diet doesn’t really come from saltshakers. Processed foods that come in cans, or items like soy sauce and cured meat, have added sodium in them that can be harmful to your health. Naturally occurring sodium in unprocessed food is good for your health. Salt can help regulate your blood pressure, make muscles contract and keep your sense of taste, smell and touch in working order. But increased levels of sodium can result in your muscles including heartworking overtime and thus increasing blood pressure.

Always check the ‘Nutrition Facts’ panel at the back, the sodium levels in the food item will be mentioned there (1,500 mg of sodium per day is the prescribed amount). Don’t fall for the ‘sodium free’ label on the package (it still means that there’s roughly 5 mg sodium per serving), or ‘reduced sodium’ (it’s just 25% less than the usual amount) or ‘light in sodium’ (half the usual amount).

Fortified foods

“Most processed foods have been fortified by nutrients. But it’s important to see what the nutrient is,” says Tripti.

According to her, when it says that it’s been fortified by extra iron or fibre, that makes a lot of difference. “Fortification of iron, as per the Indian standards, has not been the best; it’s never been proven healthy,” she says, “For a lot of people, it tends to cause IBD or constipation. It’s preferable to avoid any food that says that it’s been fortified with iron, like breakfast cereal.” If you want iron in your diet, supplement it with other iron-rich foods like spinach, sardines, raisins or dark chocolate. “If the processed food is fortified with vitamins that you don’t usually consume regularly,  it’s not a problem,” says Tripti.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has made it mandatory for manufacturers to mention the nutrient the food has been fortified with on the package, so all you need to know is which nutrients work best for you and which ones should you avoid. 


Added sweeteners increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Some researchers also suggest that fructose can cause overeating. High fructose corn syrup is one of the most popular additives and can be found in most processed foods, including muffins, soft drinks, ketchup and peanut butter. Aside from encouraging overeating, it also forces your liver to produce heart-threatening triglycerides into your blood stream.

“Any ingredient that ends with ‘ose’ or ‘tol’, indicates that it’s a form of added sugar,” says Tripti. So look out for sucralose, maltose and fructose on the label. Also, if it says ‘corn sweetener’ or ‘corn syrup’, then it usually means the same thing.