As the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said, “Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food”. In a world facing an epidemic of health issues caused by poor eating habits and nutritional imbalances, childhood is the best time for developing healthy food habits. And this starts with the simple step of understanding food labels on packaged foods, especially those meant for your kids!
Nutrition is key to brain development even during fetal and early post-natal life, as the brain is rapidly developing at this stage. Therefore, the brain is most vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies while also indicating the greatest potential for plasticity or development in the early years of a child.
Many parents of today are aware of the importance of a balanced and healthy diet for their child’s development. However, understanding the finer aspects of nutrition and the nature of the food industry is also important considering our usage of processed or packaged foods.
Ordinarily, one does not tend to dwell too much on the ingredients of a packaged food item beyond basic details like the price and the expiry date. This may also be due to the fact that food labels on packaged foods are often misleading and can be confusing to interpret in terms of their actual nutritional content and composition. The points listed below is a cheat-sheet of sorts to help you decode food label and packaging jargon for making better decisions about the food items you purchase for your child and your family :-
- The ingredients listed on food labels are in the descending order of their proportion in the item. For example, many biscuit brands claim that their products are made with “whole-wheat” or “whole-grain”. However, if one reads the label, most brands have refined wheat flour (maida) listed first, perhaps followed by whole wheat flour or another grain-derived ingredient. The thumb rule to remember is that the earlier an ingredient is listed on the label, the greater is its proportion in the item.
- More often than not, food items claiming to be “low-fat” are bound to be much higher in refined or processed sugars. Check the label to see the proportion of sugar present as compared to other ingredients using the technique as stated above. Products containing artificial sweeteners like Aspartame, Sucralose, Sorbitol should also be avoided.
- Similarly, products with ‘Light’ or ‘Lite’ on their labels or packaging need not necessarily be low in calories. It could merely be an indication that the product is low on one or more components while having the same calorific value, if not more, that an alternative product containing those components would have had.
- With respect to food items claiming to be “all-natural” or “made with real fruits”, the key to see through the marketing ruses of labels is to once again, check the proportion of the ingredients. Chances are that the actual percentage of fruit present in the item is negligible compared to the proportion of chemicals in the form of additives, preservatives and sugar. A major culprit in this category are beverages which claim to be natural and made with fruits, but often turn out to be nothing more than artificial, processed liquids with alarming amounts of sugar.
- Among the food items that one must avoid stocking in any household, and especially one with children, anything containing high-fructose corn syrup, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG or ajinomoto) and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils should be eschewed as far as possible. Chances are that these items do not contain much nutritive value aside from empty calories, so it is unlikely that they will be missed for anything other than their ease of preparation or consumption and taste. Healthier, home-made alternatives can be made from a plethora of recipes available online for free.
- High fructose corn-syrup can apparently trigger inflammation in the body and contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc., It is a cheap alternative to regular sugar, but is absorbed much more rapidly than the former, as it does not stimulate insulin (regulates blood sugar levels) or leptin (regulates hunger versus energy balance after food consumption) production in the body. This imbalance in our body’s hormonal response, in turn prevents the trigger of the body’s signals for being full, leading to over-consumption of calories.
- MSG or ajinomoto is commonly used in restaurants to make the flavours of a dish more dense and palpable. It is considered to be an excitotoxin, which means it overexcites the body’s cells to the point of damage or death, causing brain damage to varying degrees with the potential to even trigger or worsen learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and more. MSG can be listed in food labels disguised under various names apart from Monosodium Glutamate, such as autolyzed yeast, Calcium Caseinate, Glutamate, Glutamic Acid, Hydrolyzed Protein, Monopotassium Glutamate, Sodium Caseinate,Textured Protein, Yeast Extract / Food / Nutrient. The best way to avoid MSG, assuming that the aforementioned ingredients are mentioned on a food label, would be to consider the overall nutritive value of the food item before purchasing it.
- Vegetable oils are hydrogenated to make them more solid in form and increase their shelf-life. Fully hydrogenated oils are basically composed of saturated fats which are considered to have no significant effect on cardiovascular risk, but are devoid of harmful trans fat. However, research on partially hydrogenated vegetable oils indicates that the fats produced during the eponymous process contain trans fat, which raises LDL or bad cholesterol, and lowers HDL or good cholesterol. Unfortunately, food companies tend to utilize a blend of fully hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils these days under the label of ‘hydrogenated oil’, the adverse health effects of which are unknown as yet.
- Fiber is found in its most beneficial form in natural sources like whole grain pulses, fruits and vegetables, nuts etc. Many food companies claim to sell high-fiber products in a packaged form, which in reality, tends to be cheaper alternatives that have little or no health benefits.
- Packaged and processed meats tend to be loaded with salt and preservatives, and may also contain carcinogenic compounds during the process of being smoked or cured. It is advisable to cut out red meat completely from your child’s diet as well as your own, or stick to roasted meat from organic sources on an occasional basis.
- For ease of reference, 5 grams of fat is equal to 1 teaspoon of fat, 5 grams of sugar is equal to 1 teaspoon of sugar. This proportion can be utilized for determining the overall nutritive value of a food item by comparing it to the figures mentioned on the label. Also, food items with 3 grams of dietary fiber means that they are a source of dietary fiber, hence, items with 6 grams of fiber per 100 grams of product can be called high in fiber.
Essentially, the best preventative measure that a parent can take with respect to a child’s nutrition, is to keep processed and packaged foods at bay as far as possible, and maintain a diet of fresh, organic produce along with adequate consumption of water. Aside from the conventional wisdom of incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in one’s diet, involving one’s child in fun activities in the kitchen or in a garden, or even grocery shopping using the thumb rules stated above would enforce the child’s understanding of nutrition and the adage of health being wealth.