I cannot help but notice how food items that claim to be healthy now dominate supermarket aisles. Much to my surprise, almost all popular foods—namkeen, chips, cookies and salad dressings, to name a few—are available in a ‘diet’ or ‘healthy’ variant. The food industry has been reaping the benefits of the health craze.
What’s in a label?
Once a food has been labelled ‘healthy’, it grabs attention and is sure to sell. However, the Access to Nutrition Foundation (ATNF) has found that food and beverage companies are grossly falling short of what needs to be done to fight malnutrition. ATNF has also revealed that many food products from well-established food companies score very poorly on their nutritive worth. What is more disturbing is that the health claims are misleading. A brand that claims to make its biscuits with whole wheat flour (less refined flour) actually contains maida (more refined flour).
Unhealthy in disguise
How, then, does a food item pass the litmus test for being healthy? You need to essentially look at three things when examining a food item for its nutritional worth. The first thing is to look at the list of ingredients and next their source. Third, the cooking and manufacturing processes that the ingredients undergo before becoming the final product. Reading food labels carefully helps you make informed decisions.
Soya katori or soya chips is a much-touted health snack. These are highly-processed snack items, and they look and taste like regular potato chips. Just adding soy flour does little to make it healthy. The soy flour is processed and mixed with several additives to make the product. Sometimes, the long ingredients list is just different kinds of preservatives and additives that make the product. If you compare its nutritional worth with regular chips, you’ll hardly find any difference.
Similarly, some snacks—such as packaged soups—claim to be healthy by adding ‘real vegetable’ to the product. The negligible amount of dehydrated vegetable typically added is unlikely to add any nutritional value. Needless to say, these products, too, contain their fair share of preservatives and additives.
You would think those food items that claim to be baked surely contain less fat. But if you look closely, the calorie content varies only marginally from the regular or fried variants. The fact is - depending on the recipe, baked products could still have generous amounts of fat (oil or trans fats) to make them crispy and crunchy. At other times, the excess sugar in the product more than compensates for the reduced amount of fat. So a bowl of baked crisps could contain just as much fat as the fried variant.
Diet chiwda is another trendy snack. Its lower fat content may lead us to believe that it’s better than regular chiwda, but its sugar and salt content is significantly ramped up to make up for the loss of taste due to the low fat content. A high-sugar and -salt snack is by no means healthier than one with lower fat content. Sugar is now considered a bigger villain than fat.
Read the fine print
Food manufacturers also get away with labelling food as healthy by replacing a small portion of the non-healthy ingredient with a healthier alternative. If only a part of the maida is replaced with whole wheat atta, whether it is in bread or noodles, will it lead to any benefit to the consumer?
The lax laws around food labelling in India also allow for products to make claims such as ‘diabetic friendly’ by not adding sugar but increasing the fat content, which is not healthy either. Foods claiming to have ‘zero cholesterol’ are high on fat content than other cholesterol-free sources.
It’s essential to keep the above points in mind when you examine foods that claim to be healthy. In fact, when it comes to comparisons, perhaps just eating the regular snack food in restricted amounts and infrequently may be just as well for you.
Neelanjana Singh is a Delhi-based senior nutritionist.
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