Decoding food labels

The jargon on any food label is enough to scare anyone off. We attempt to solve the puzzle.

Commonly used terms

These terms are found on practically every food package. And we still don't know what they mean.


One or more nutrients are added. For example, enriched whole meal brown bread enriched with fibre.


One or more nutrients are added during processing. For example, breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals; iodised salt is fortified with iodine.

Health food:

A promotional term used to imply that a certain food has health-giving qualities beyond its expected nutritive value

Natural food:

A product that has minimal or no refinement or processing (not a legally-regulated term). A product with this claim may not only contain artificial flavours, colours and preservatives, but may also be loaded with fat, sugar, calories and sodium.

Organically grown food: Food grown and processed without chemicals and pesticides (not a legally-regulated term).

Fat related:

These terms alert weight watchers, diabetics and heart patients.

Cholesterol free:

Less than 2 mg cholesterol per serving.

Low cholesterol:

Less than 20 mg of cholesterol per serving.

Cholesterol reduced:

Reformulated or processed foods to lower their normal cholesterol levels by at least 75 per cent.

No cholesterol:

Devoid of animal products. For example, butter, ghee, lard, etc.

Made with vegetable oil:

Do not be fooled since this term does not necessarily imply low fat.

100 per cent vegetable oil:

Devoid of animal fat, but does not mean it is low in fat.

Saturated and trans fat:These are the ‘bad' fats.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat: These are the ‘preferred' fats

Omega-3 fats:

These are the ‘healthy' fats

Sodium related: Useful for those suffering from high blood pressure and kidney problems. Products like ketchup, sauce, chutneys, pickles, salted snacks are high in sodium.


Less than five mg per serving.

Very low sodium: Less than 35 mg sodium per serving.

Low sodium:

140 mg or less sodium per serving.


Processed without salt.

Sugar related:

For diabetics and weight. Lactose, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, fructose

are all different types of sugars

Fibre related:


Made from refined flour, which can mean zero per cent fibre.


Made from whole grains, millets and pulses, and contain more fibre than normal.

Breakfast cereals from whole grain are often high in fibre.

Weight reduction related:

Lean: implies a product with significantly less fat than would be expected in the regular product.


signifies reductions in salt, sodium or calorie-containing components. Since this term has no legal meaning, look out for catches – could mean light in texture.

Vitamin and mineral related: Fortified with vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium,Vitamin B-complex,Vitamin A and D.

Additive related:

They are artificial colours, flavours, preservatives, antioxidants, etc.

Products containing MSG (Mono sodium glutamate), like instant noodles and soups, should not be given to children below two years of age since MSG is carcinogenic (cancer-causing). Adults should also exercise caution and not indulge in them frequently.

Sodium nitrite:

Used as a preservative in cured/smoked meats – is also carcinogenic. It is advisable to avoid foods that are refined and contain large amounts of sugar, fat, salt, artificial colours and flavours.

Food dating system

‘Use by date' – the last date, later than which the food product cannot be consumed – is used on perishable foods such as dairy, eggs and fresh meat and fresh food.This

is given in order to avoid the possibility of food poisoning.

Freshness date –

provides a cut off date after which the products could be poor quality.

Expiration/ expiry date –

found on packaged foods that lose value if used after the expiry date -such as yeast, baking powder, cake mix, idli/dhokla mix, ready masala.