What's On Your Food Label? Don't Fall for These Tricks

Chew On This
5 min read
What's On Your Food Label? Don't Fall for These Tricks

(7 June is celebrated as World Food Safety Day. This year's theme is, 'safe food now for a healthy tomorrow'.)

When you buy packaged food, what do you look for?

Do you reach for the organic options? Or the one that claims to be 'fat-free'? Or the one that has 'Zero-trans fat'?

Making healthy choices can be a daunting task when you're spoilt for choices and bombarded with buzzwords meant to entice you. But turns out, as is the case with most things in life, you can't judge packaged foods by their covers.

Flipping the pack to study the information at the back, however, can help you make better, healthier choices.

What are some ways in which food manufacturers trick consumers? What are some ingredients to look out for on food labels?

FIT speaks to Dr Satish Kulkarni, former member of Food safety and Standard authority of India's (FSSAI) scientific committee with an expertise in packaging and labelling.


Beyond Expiry Dates and Calorie Counts

To begin with, Dr Kulkarni speaks of three levels at which consumers can check for food regulation compliance— packaging, labelling and claims.

"Although as consumers we have now started checking for the expiry date a lot more naturally, that isn't enough," says Dr Kulkarni.

"In the studies we have conducted we have found that only roughly 11 percept people look at the back of a product. 70 percent of these people only look at the cost and the expiry date, the remaining 30 percent that look at the nutritional information only focus on the fat and salt contents."
Dr Satish Kulkarni

But a careful read of the information given at the back of consumer products can help you avoid the many tricks and traps that companies use to entice consumers.

Beware of False Claims

Manufacturers aren't allowed to lie on their packaging right? Actually, that isn't entirely true.

There are no guidelines for the claims that manufacturers can make on the front of packs (except certain mandatory information like the veg and non-veg symbols).

So as a rule of thumb, you're better off ignoring all the enticing claims on the front of the packs, because that's all they are, claims meant to lure consumers.

Some of the most common false claims that Dr Kulkarni lists are,

  • Healthy, Healthier

  • Organic

  • 100% Natural

  • Multigrain

  • Low-fat

  • Low-carb

  • Rich in protein, fibre, or other nutrients

  • Zero cholesterol

Other popular misleading claims are 'No added sugar'—unhealthy sugar substitutes may be added.

'Made with 100% real ingredients'— certain ingredients used may be a '100 percent real', but only make up a tiny portion of the total ingredients. You might have read this one on ketchup bottles that claim to use 100 percent real tomatoes.

"In recent times a lot of claims are made on the immunity aspect, claiming it (a product) is good for immunity when such claims are not permitted. Most immunity claims on food products is questionable."
Dr Satish Kulkarni

Apart from these FOPs will often play up the benefits of certain ingredients, or give implied claims.

"Suppose someone says this milk has carotene in it which prevents night blindness. This is an implied claim that the milk will prevent night blindness," explains Dr Kulkarni.

What's in a Name?

Turns out, a lot.

Manufacturers will often use brand names to pass off certain artificial substitutes as a natural product without implicating themselves. They do this by using camouflaging brand names like 'cheez-y' or 'paneer-o'.

Names like these are likely to lead a consumer into thinking what they are buying is cheese or paneer, but these are in fact trademarked names, and only scrutinising the ingredient list can tell if the product is what it's implied to be.

Camouflaging is usually used for natural passing replicas

"If you're buying cheese, check in the ingredients contain dairy or vegetable fat. The latter is used to create what is called, cheese analogue—products that replicate cheese using a combination of nondairy products."
Dr Satish Kulkarni

Another example where vegetable fat is used as a cheap substitute is chocolate.


If the pack says compound chocolate, it doesn't actually have any real chocolate in it.

Compounds use vegetable fat as a substitute for cocoa butter, which is mixed with a bunch of other ingredients to replicate the taste and texture of chocolate.

"In these cases, manufacturers aren't allowed label the products 'cheese', or 'chocolate', but consumers don't always know to check for the alternative names," adds Dr Kulkarni.

Another very common example of this is 'frozen desserts' which also uses vegetable fat to replicate the taste and texture of ice cream but according to food labelling regulations, aren't called can't be called ice cream as they don't actually contain any dairy in them.

What to Look For on the Back of a Pack

  • Cross check FOP with BOP

"Make sure the product you're buying is what it claims to be by checking the ingredient list. The thing you're looking for should be one of the first ingredients," says Dr Kulkarni.

For instance, If you're buying maple syrup that has a long list of ingredients and maple syrup isn't one of them, put it down, and keep looking.

  • Check for vegetable fat content

Before you pat yourself in the back for making the healthy choice of reaching for the 'trans fat free' food, check for vegetable fat or vegetable oil in the ingredients list.

Trans fats AKA the thing that increases 'bad cholesterol' and reduces 'good cholesterol' AKA the worst kind of fat, is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular issues.

Artificial Trans fats are basically hydrogenated vegetable oil, and are used widely in all kinds of processed foods from frozen to fried foods.

In 2018, FSSAI said it has decided to bring down the trans-fatty acids (TFA) in processed foods to less than 2 per cent.

But the catch here is that anything less than 0.5 percent can be labelled as 'zero trans fat'.

To avoid hidden unhealthy fats lookout for the terms— vegetable oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and saturated fats.

  • Be wary of long lists of ingredients (especially when it comes to fairly simple foods.)

For instance, a pack of honey having anything else but honey in it is a red flag.

In fact, "honey is one of the most adulterated products available in the market, where it is mixed with other types of syrups," says Dr Kulkarni.

"The same goes for plain spices like turmeric which can contain adulterants such as starch," adds Dr Kulkarni

  • Look out for cheap blends

If you're going for a higher end variety of a product like tea or chilly powder, read the ingredient list to make sure it isn't blended with cheaper varieties, advices Dr Kulkarni. "Adulterations like this happen most of the time in cases where the pure ingredients are expensive."

"In chilly powder, suppose the pack claims to made of Byadagi chilli in the FOP, but it could really be mixed with other low cost chilly powders."
Dr Satish Kulkarni

Another example of cheap blends that Dr Kulkarni gives is of Ghee which may be mixed with Vanaspati—hydrogenated vegetable oil, or other oils in a certain percentage.

"When buying high value products, cautiously look at the ingredients for any additives."
Dr Satish Kulkarni

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