I cannot help but notice how supermarkets have begun to be dominated by the sale of food items that claim to be healthy. Much to my surprise, almost all popular foods—namkeens, chips, cookies, salad dressings, etc.—are available in a ‘diet’ or ‘healthy’ variant.
The food industry has been reaping the benefits of the health craze. 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 of well-established food companies score very poorly on their nutritive worth. What is more disturbing is that the health claims are misleading, a biscuit brand that claims to make its product with wholewheat flour actually contains more refined flour (maida) than wholewheat flour (the less refined flour).
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How, then, does a food item pass the litmus test for being healthy? There are essentially three things that you need to look at when examining a food item for its nutritive worth. The first thing to do is to look at the list of ingredients. Secondly, the source of the ingredients matters. Thirdly, the cooking and manufacturing processes that the food undergoes before it becomes the final product make a difference. Reading food labels carefully is what will help you make informed decisions.
A much touted health snack is soya katori or soya chips. These are highly processed snack items, and they look and taste quite like regular potato chips. The presence of soy flour in the product does little by way of making it healthy. The soy flour has been processed and mixed with several additives to make the product. Sometimes, the really long ingredients list is just different kinds of preservatives and additives that go into making the product. If you make a note of the nutritive worth of this much-touted snack and compare it with regular chips, you will find that there is hardly any difference.
On the same lines, some snacks—such as packaged soups—make the claim of being healthy by adding ‘real vegetable’ to the product. The negligible amount of dehydrated vegetable that is typically added to these food items is unlikely to add any nutritive worth to the product. Needless to say, these products, too, contain their fair share of preservatives and additives.
You would think that health food items that claim to be baked surely contain less fat. But have you noticed that the calorie content varies only marginally from the regular or fried variants? The fact of the matter is that baked products could still have generous amounts of fat (oil/trans fats) in them that makes the product crispy or crunchy, depending on the recipe. At other times, the excess sugar in the product more than compensates for the reduced amount of fat. This is why a bowl of baked crisps could contain just as much fat as the fried variant.
Let us get talking about another popular snack, diet chiwda. Its lower fat content leads us to believe that it is better than regular chiwda. However, if you look at the sugar and salt content in the food item, you will see that they have significantly been ramped up to make up for the loss of taste due to the low fat content. A snack that is high on both sugar and salt is by no means healthier than one with a lower fat content. In fact, sugar is now being looked upon as a bigger villain than fat.
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Yet another way that health food manufacturers get away with labelling a food healthy is by replacing just a small portion of the non-healthy ingredient with a healthy one. If only a part of the maida is replaced with wholewheat 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 allows also for products to make claims such as ‘diabetic friendly’ by not adding sugar but increasing the fat content, which is not healthy either. Foods are claiming to have ‘zero cholesterol’ but they are high on fat content from other cholesterol-free sources.
It’s important to examine your health foods on the aforementioned counts before including them in your diet. In fact, when it comes to comparisons, perhaps eating the regular snack food in restricted amounts and infrequently may work out just as well for you!
Neelanjana Singh is a Delhi-based senior nutritionist.
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