Label Literacy: Here’s Why You MUST Read Labels

A person shocked by reading labels

The question paper is the answer sheet! Have you ever shopped for a snack convinced it was a healthy choice, only to be shocked later when an influencer or a friend reveals the truth about that product? You’re not alone. But what if the secret weapon to avoiding this scenario (and many others) was hiding in plain sight – on the very product you're holding? Food mysteries are like question papers with answers written on the back. Yes, this blog is all about understanding and reading food labels better.

Table of Contents

  1. What to look for in labels?
  2. Why reading labels matters
  3. 4 Tricks used by food companies
  4. Practical tips to understand labels better
  5. Conclusion
  6. FAQs

What to look for in labels?

Ever imagine being a detective? Collecting clues to uncover the truth about a mystery. And the mystery? How healthy is the food and health drinks you consume on a regular basis? The key evidence? The label! By learning to read the information on those seemingly boring labels, you can take control of your health. So, grab your magnifying glass (or reading glasses) and look out for these things on every label:

Not Rocket Science nutrition drink bottle’s label

Serving Size

This might seem obvious, but it's not! Those calorie counts and nutrient percentages are based on a specific amount known as the “serving size”. This is literally the amount of that food that you should consume in one serving. So how do brands trick you? They play it smart with this number. More on this in the tricks section below. Reading and understanding the serving size will help you make apples-to-apples comparisons and avoid getting misled by the brand’s marketing.

Ingredient List

This is where your real detective work begins! Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, meaning the first ingredient is what's present in the highest quantity. So, if sugar is listed near the top, you know it’s a major player.

Nutrition Facts Panel

This panel is your one-stop to understanding a product's nutritional breakdown. Keep an eye out for key elements like calories, fat, carbohydrates (including fibre and sugar), protein, vitamins and minerals.

Allergy Information

This section is especially important for anyone with allergies or sensitivities. It clearly highlights ingredients that could trigger a reaction, allowing you to make safe choices.


No not the dried fruit but best-before or expiry dates! Expired products can be harmful when consumed, so always be sure to check dates both while purchasing and before actual consumption.

Why reading labels matters

Now that you know the elemental blocks that go into making a nutrition label, let’s understand what the buzz is all about. Why has reading labels or label literacy become so important? So much so that it’s one of the guidelines released by ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) in 2024 and a buzzword amongst the Indian health and fitness community online.

Making Informed Choices

Imagine walking into a maze blindfolded. With the amount of processed foods available and being consumed daily, that's exactly what happens when you don’t read labels. The label discloses the entire nutritional profile of a product, allowing you to make conscious choices. Whether your goal is weight management, muscle gain or just having a balanced diet, label awareness can help you select the most suitable product for your goal. It can be quite helpful especially when choosing your nutrition drinks. For example, if you are working towards muscle gain you need a post-workout protein shake with low sugar that promises a serving of at least 24g protein or more. However, if you are more concerned about your overall nutrition then you can prioritise a supershake like Not Rocket Science which has a balanced nutrition profile with 12g protein, 6g of healthy fats, zinc and iron, while being low in sugar and having a clean ingredient profile. How will you know all this? By READING THE LABEL.

Avoiding Hidden Sugars and Unhealthy Fats

Sugar and fat aren't inherently bad, but a lot of both can be bad for you. Excess sugar can keep your blood sugar constantly elevated causing chronic conditions like diabetes while also leaving your body in a state of constant inflammation and more prone to hormonal imbalances and weight gain. Excess fat deposits in the body can lead to everything from cardiovascular diseases to weight gain, which itself can lead to a pandora’s box of health problems. Labels help you identify products high in added sugars and unhealthy fats (like saturated and trans fats). By being aware of these ingredients in three bites of your favourite snack or one serving, you can limit your consumption of junk to “once-in-a-while” and instead go for healthy snacks in your regular lifestyle.

Marketing Claims

Packaging can be deceiving. Bold claims like "healthy" or "low-fat" might not always tell the whole story. Labels provide the complete picture, beyond all the marketing hype. Often “low fat” is compensated in taste by adding more sugars and artificial flavouring and “low sugar” or “no sugar” usually points to artificial sweeteners which can be just as bad or worse depending on your health profile or fitness goals. You can use the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts panel to verify these claims and ensure that the product truly aligns with its advertised benefits.

Catering to Dietary Needs

For people with specific dietary restrictions, labels are a lifeline. Whether you're vegan, gluten-free, following a diabetic diet, or have any other dietary needs, the label clearly indicates if a product is suitable for you instead of leaving you guessing.

Remember how our parents and teachers always told us that knowledge is power, well, it actually is! Just by taking the time to read the information on labels, you can improve your health for the long term. The viral influencer Revant Himatsingka also known as ‘foodpharmer’ on social media has recently started a whole movement as well about reading labels, watch it here:

4 Tricks used by food companies

A woman is confused while choosing healthy drinks at a supermarket

While food labels are a valuable tool for all the information, it's important to be aware of some of the tricks used by food companies to misguide the average customer aka you.

What's in the Name? Everything!

Don't be fooled by seemingly healthy-sounding names on the front of the package. Words like "healthy," "natural," or "whole grain" might not always reflect the entire truth. Always flip the product over and check the ingredient list. Cross-check if the claims on the front match with the label at the back. This is where you'll find the real story. This section is also where you'll find hidden sugars disguised under different names like high fructose corn syrup.

Numbers Instead of Names in Ingredients

Have you ever come across things like – INS 951, E334, INS 955 in the ingredient list? What do they even mean? And what are they doing in your food? Well, as you might’ve guessed, they are not real ingredients. They are synthetic or artificial ingredients conveniently added by food brands to alter some of the natural properties of food like colour and longevity. While some additives may be safe, others may not be. And even additives approved by regulatory bodies can build up and cause harm to your body overtime. For example, sodium benzoate or INS 211, is a preservative used in everything from jams and packaged drinks to mouthwash and even body lotion. It is generally deemed “safe” but when combined with Vitamin C, the cancer-causing benzene may form. This apart from other issues like inflammation and ADHD which can happen over time. A good rule of thumb is to go for products with a shorter and more readable ingredient list.

One Can of Coke ≠ One Serving

Pay close attention to the serving size on the label. This seemingly simple number can be a rabbit-out-the-hat trick. For example, a 300ml can of cola is labelled as containing 88 calories, but the serving size is 200ml. Now Imagine that! How often do you open a can of Coke, measure out 200ml and keep aside the remaining 100ml? Almost never, right!? Such methods can be misleading, as most people would likely consume the entire can in one sitting. As a customer, always pay attention to serving size, instead of packet size and ask yourself: is the serving size a realistic measure of consumption?

Don't Judge a Snack by its Cover

Food companies often use the front of the package to grab your attention with bold claims and eye-catching images. For example, a leading tomato ketchup brand has pictures of bright red tomatoes on its packaging but reading through the nutrition label, you find the main ingredient is water, tomato paste (only 28%), then sugar and a motley crew of 4-5 INS certified artificial food ingredients for preserving, stabilising and acidity regulation. In such cases, go for clean brands that focus on having a natural ingredient list, instead of misleading packaging. For example a rare healthy drink brand which is clean and does not mislead with its packaging is Not Rocket Science.

So the lesson is, don't get influenced by flashy marketing (difficult not to, but very important to try). Whenever a pack seems tempting, remind yourself to check the back of the package, the ingredient list and the Nutrition Facts panel.

Practical tips to understand labels better

Feeling overwhelmed by all this label talk? Don't worry! Here is your cheat sheet:

Don't Be Intimidated

Those labels might seem complex at first, but with a little practice, it becomes easy. Start by focusing on a few key aspects like serving size, sugar content and ingredients you're trying to avoid. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually go deeper and deeper.

Focus on Key Metrics

Not all information on the label is equally important. Identify your priorities. Are you watching your calorie intake? Keeping an eye on sugar content? Once you know your goals, prioritise the metrics that matter most to you.


Don't just rely on one product. When faced with similar options, take a moment to compare the labels. This will help you quickly identify which product offers a more favourable nutritional profile based on your needs.

Understanding Daily Values (DV)

The % Daily Value (%DV) listed next to nutrients on the label provides context. A DV of 5% or less means the food contributes a low amount of that nutrient to your daily needs, while 20% or more indicates a substantial contribution. Utilise this information to see how a serving of the product fits into your overall dietary needs.


Food labels might seem a bit technical in the beginning, but they're actually your friend and can greatly help you make informed food choices. By making the effort to understand the information they provide, you can gain control over your health and well-being.

Remember, label awareness is about more than just counting calories and grams of fat. It's about understanding the ingredients that go into your food, and hence in your body.

So, the next time you're at the grocery store or ordering online, don't be afraid to grab those reading glasses and become a label-reading detective! With a little practice and the tips you learned here, you can soon become a super successful food detective!


1. I don't have a lot of time to read labels at the grocery store. What are the most important things I can look for in a nutrition label?

You can briefly scan the following in this case: serving size, sugar content and ingredients list.

2. What are some red flags to watch out for on labels?

4 absolute red flags are – long ingredient lists (with a lot of numbers rather than names), added sugars near the top of the ingredient list, high amounts of saturated and trans fats and vague health claims on the front of the package.

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