This is the age of hard sell: everything that is or can be on sale, is being sold aggressively through promotions, advertisements, media campaigns, claims of how good the product is, what health benefits it supposedly has, etc... and that also goes for the food that we eat. Have you noticed food products that proclaim how healthy they are—a “no fat” yogurt, an oil that is healthy for the heart, or a “high fibre” cereal? Walk into the food section of a supermarket and you will see them. Check out food advertisements and you will find them. How much truth is there in these claims? Are food companies misleading us?
The other day, while strolling between the rows of packaged food items in my neighbourhood supermarket, I came upon this packet of a well-known and well-liked biscuit brand. The label on the packet claimed that these biscuits were 'sugar-free'. I have often been intrigued by such claims on labels of things that we eat, and so, decided to find out what 'sugarfree' really meant, and I was taken aback by what my family doctor told me.
She said that sugar-free does not mean that the biscuit has fewer calories, in fact, it may have more! Sugar-free products, I was told, have very little sugar per serving, but they may still contain calories and carbohydrates from other sources. Essentially, the biscuit company was misleading me into believing that these biscuits would be low-calorie because they had very little sugar in them.
Food labels should be helping us make healthy and safe food choices. With heart diseases, cancers and obesity affecting more and more people and children every year, it becomes all the more important to know which foods are truly healthy. But do we get to know that? At most times, it is becoming more and more difficult to figure out because manufacturers make misleading and empty claims about their products.
The CSE studies
Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the New Delhi-based non-government organisation, has been campaigning to ensure that the food we—especially children—eat is clean and free of toxins, pesticides, and other elements which harm our health. In 2003 and 2006, the CSE laboratory had tested bottled water and soft drink brands, and found high levels of pesticide residues in them!
Similarly, tests conducted on commonly available brands of honey (claimed to be ‘pure’) found residues of antibiotics in them, while claims made on packages of aloo bhujia and instant noodles—found another CSE study— were way off the mark. The aloo bhujia of a popular brand said it had no trans fats, but CSE found trans fats in every 100 grams of the product. In the case of instant noodles, every packet contained a huge quantity of salt—3 grams. Human beings need only 6 grams a day, which means that if we eat a packet of noodles, we use up 50 per cent of our quota of salt for that day.
Noodle nonsense: An 80-grams packet of atta noodles claims it provides dietary fibres equivalent to three rotis. Nutritionists say three rotis contain about nine grams of fibre. Studies say that every 100 grams of atta noodles contains only 5.3 grams of fibre. The atta noodles packet also claims high vegetable content in the product. What they have actually is just two pods of green peas, two French beans, and a small portion of carrots—high vegetable content, really?
Junk juices: Packaged juices often claim that they are 100 per cent pure and natural. But the juice actually contains sugar, artificial flavours, and preservatives.
Multigrain muddle: ‘Multigrain’ bread is all the rage now, but have we stopped to ask ourselves what they really hold? Multigrain products can be made from refined, polished grains, in a process that takes away the healthiest nutrients that grain has to offer. What we should opt for instead is ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’ products. Whole grains, like popcorn or oatmeal, have more fibre and nutrients.
Cholesterol-free: This doesn’t mean literally no cholesterol. Cholesterol is made by the liver, so all animal products (meat, dairy, etc.) are its main source. Even those products claiming to be cholesterol-free—have some cholesterol in them.
No added sugar: But that food product may contain sugar, naturally! In fact, fruits, vegetables, milk, and cereals do contain sugar.
Zero trans fats: This too, does not mean the food has no trans fats. It may contain a small amount in every serving and if you take more than one serving, you could be eating a heavy dose of trans fats!
Gluten-free: Only relevant for people who have celiac diseases (in which the small intestine is intolerant to gluten and the person cannot digest food) or any other form of gluten intolerance. Advertisers now use this claim rampantly, without caring to inform buyers further about it.