If you’re avoiding gluten, dairy, sugar or any other allergens, knowing exactly what all those numbers and words mean on food labels is critical. And even if you’re not cutting any of those out, reading and understanding food labels means you’ll know what you’re getting when you buy food, and you’ll be able to make more informed choices when deciding what food to buy.
In South Africa, we’re lucky to have strict food labelling regulations and food label laws that inform consumers and protect us from misleading claims made by manufacturers — making it easier for us to understand exactly what we’re buying, and eating. It’s not all good news though; the labels on some foods don’t comply with the laws and they’re often not enforced. Read on to find out what info you should find on your food labels — and what it really means.
1 Start with the ingredients
Tempted by the health benefits of that goji berry and almond bar? Check the ingredient list; you may be disappointed to find that your treat doesn’t have a lot of goji berries or almonds in it. South African food labelling regulations make it compulsory for labels that emphasise ingredients to also tell us exactly what percentage of the final product is made up of those ingredients.
This also applies to statements like ‘whole grain’. If you’d like to eat more whole grains, check the food labels and choose products made up of between 50% and 100% whole grains.
Products must also list their ingredients in order of descending weight, so if sugar is first on the ingredients list, you’ll know that there’s more sugar than anything other single ingredient in your food.
2 Move on to the nutritional analysis
A nutritional analysis table shows how much energy, macronutrients (like carbs, protein and fat), fibre and micronutrients (like vitamins and minerals, including sodium) are in your food. The nutritional table should give you this information per 100g and per serving AND it should give you an indication of the serving size. This is what you need to check if, for example, you’re looking for a food that’s high in protein and low in sodium.
When comparing two kinds of food, always compare the figures in the ‘per 100g’ column because the serving sizes may be different. But, don’t forget to check the ‘per serving’ column, too. A food may look like it’s high in protein because it has 25g of protein per 100g, but if the serving size is only 5g, then you’ll get less than 1g of protein per serving.
This handy table explains what the claims on some food labels actually mean:
But, to add to the confusion, there are different laws regulating labelling of some dairy products, like milk, yoghurt and cheese. From April 2016, these products should be labelled as follows:
3 Food labels and allergens
The legislation in South Africa looks after the growing number of us who suffer from food allergies and intolerances. Common allergens, including things like egg, cow’s milk, gluten and peanuts, MUST be listed on a product’s packaging.
Tip: If you have a food allergy that doesn’t fall into the common allergen category, never fear, the food labelling regulations consider you, too! If you contact a manufacturer and ask if a product contains an uncommon allergen, they must disclose it to you.
4 All about food labels and sugar
What does ‘sugar free’ really mean?
Only foods that have less than 0.5g of sugar per 100g can claim they are sugar free. But watch out, in many cases, manufacturers replace sugar with fat and sweeteners, such as aspartame, to make up for lost flavour. So ‘sugar free’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘low kilojoule’. If you’re avoiding sugar to cut kilojoules, rather choose food based on energy values.
What does ‘no added sugar’ mean?
This doesn’t mean it’s sugar free, or necessarily low in sugar, just that no extra sugar has been added. In South Africa, we’re lucky and the food labelling regulations state that if a label makes the ‘no added sugar’ claim it can’t contain syrups like honey, molasses or even fruit juice concentrate.
Tip: If fruit juice makes the ‘no added sugar’ claim, it must be made from only fresh fruit juice, not from deflavoured fruit juice or concentrate. So if that’s what you’re after, look for it on labels.
5 What do ‘reduced’ and ‘light’ really mean?
Remember that the word ‘reduced’ doesn’t necessarily mean low — so those reduced-salt crackers you’re snacking on aren’t necessarily low in salt. The food label laws say labels that make comparative claims, like reduced or light, must also describe the kinds of food and the amounts they’re comparing (like a cup of double cream yoghurt and a cup of fat-free yoghurt) and list the value of the difference — which must be at least 25%.
6 What is an endorsement?
Endorsements are those mysterious logos you see on your food packaging. Health organisations that are allowed to endorse food are strictly regulated — only those approved by the Director General of the Department of Health have this capability! That’s why health practitioner’s are not allowed to endorse food products. Once an organisation has proven all sorts of things, including that it’s involved in general health promotion that’s backed by evidence-based nutrition, manufacturers can happily put their endorsements on food labels.
Tip: Look out for logos from the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Diabetes South Africa; these foods have to meet stringent criteria to carry the logos.
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DISCLAIMER: Before starting any diet, you should speak to your doctor. You must not rely on the information on this website/newsletter as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.