More than just a label
Food labels are a legal requirement in South Africa: by law, manufacturers cannot put unqualified or unsubstantiated information on packaged foods. The R146, Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act of 1972 specifies the type of information – definitions, provisions, nutritional information, claims, exceptions and so on – that is and isn’t allowed on food.
“Food labels ensure customers are able to make informed choices on the products they are buying,” says Yuri Bhaga, associate dietitian at Mbali Mapholi Inc in Johannesburg.
Nicole de Klerk, dietician at The Pocket Dietician in Cape Town, adds that nutrition labelling is “a population-based approach”, and, when well defined, it can have a positive influence on the diet of consumers.
“According to the WHO [World Health Organization], labelling is a tool that can be used to decrease diseases of lifestyle such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases,” she says.
“Studies have shown a consistent link between the use of nutrition labels and healthier food choices and diets.
“Those [people] found to use nutrition labels were found to be more likely to eat healthier foods, have a reduced fat, sodium, cholesterol and energy intake as well as increased fibre, iron and vitamin C intake.
“Each individual manufacturer is responsible for writing their own labels. However, there are strict regulations on what can and cannot be on a food label,” she says.
“Manufacturers have to adhere to the guidelines set out by the government that detail each and every aspect of labelling.”
Food labels are usually found at the back of food packaging and contain information such as ingredients, allergens, where the product was made, nutritional information, health claims, handling and storage instructions, as well as expiry dates.
“This information can help consumers make good and safe food decisions, for example to help prevent food-borne illness and allergic reactions,” says Bhaga.
“The labels literally tell you what you are eating,” says Riaan van der Walt, corporate dietician at Healthyworx in Gqeberha.
There are two main layers of information found on the back of food labels, he explains.
Layer one is a list of ingredients used to make up the food product such as sugar and salt, which are listed in descending order of quantity.
The second layer of information is the table of nutritional information that breaks down the product contents into macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat and sugar) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
The table of nutritional information allows the consumer to tell the proportions of the main ingredients in a food product.
De Klerk offers the example of unsweetened yogurt: “When looking at the nutritional information table you may see sugar [listed in grams]. But there [may not be] sugar in the ingredients list. The sugar on the nutritional label is the lactose, which is the naturally occurring sugar in dairy and not added sugars.”
Both the list of ingredients and the table of nutritional information are equally important in helping consumers better understand the product, says Bhaga.
“It is important to know how to read the nutritional table and how to interpret the information provided, as not all information is as simple as it may seem.”
So what is the best way to read food labels?
De Klerk says learning how to read a food label does not necessarily have to be difficult and, when done right, is an empowering nutritional tool.
Next to the macro- and micronutrient column in the nutritional information table, you will find a “per 100g” column and a “per serving” column.
De Klerk explains that the 100g column allows us to cross-compare food items. Bhaga adds, “When reading a food label you generally want to be using the ‘per 100g’ column when making decisions around the nutritional content as this allows for fair comparison to other products.”
The 100g column also allows us to determine what type of meal a packaged food product is – whether it is a protein-rich meal, a sugar-rich meal or a fibre-rich meal.
The “per serving” column is the recommended serving size of the product.
De Klerk explains that this value is determined by the manufacturer and is the serving size for a single serving, although “it is important to note that the serving size is not personalised to individual needs”.
“Serving sizes differ greatly across brands and different types of foods and, for the most part, people do not eat as per the recommended serving size so it is not a great estimate of the nutritional value of a product, unless you are looking at it in total isolation and will be consuming the serving sizes as listed,” adds Bhaga.
Both De Klerk and Bhaga agree that it helps to have a basic understanding of recommended amounts.
Van der Walt offers several points as a guideline: “‘Fat is not nearly as important as most people believe. What is important is thee amount of saturated fats. You want to minimise saturated fats to under 10% in your diet. For example, a food label that contains 10g or less out of 100g is optimal.”
He says protein is important and that it is a good idea to stick to products that contain 10% protein or higher.
The next ingredient we need to look out for is sugar. “You want to limit the amount of sugar you consume in your diet … to approximately 10g per 100g or less,” he says.
The excessive consumption of salt has been linked to hypertension (high blood pressure), a cardiovascular disease that plagues South Africa. A 2017 study by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) found that South Africa had the highest incidence of hypertension in southern Africa.
Van der Walt advises that we should try and limit our quantities of salt. “A gold standard to aim for is 120mg per 100g and anything over 400mg should ultimately not be consumed.”
Another ingredient he says to steer clear of is trans-fatty acids or trans fats, which are found in packaged foods such as biscuits, chips and pizza. Trans fats are usually oils that have gone through a process of hydrogenation to increase their shelf-life and are linked to a slew of health risks from cardiovascular diseases to obesity.
“You will also notice that many food labels will report whether or not they contain trans fats. These should be avoided at all costs,” says Van der Walt.
De Klerk points out that allergy sufferers need to be aware of any allergens a packaged product may contain.
“Labelling regulations are strict about this and it is often well presented on the label,” she says.
“There is a lot of misinformation surrounding certain ingredients, but what these usually fail to highlight is the specific dose of these components that would need to be ingested for it to become harmful. The dose makes the poison,” Bhaga adds.
Although the primary role of a food label may be to give us a betther understanding of what we are eating, and manufacturers are legally required to adhere to labelling legislation, food labels also aid in selling the product.
Bhaga and De Klerk caution against sensational marketing claims, with Van der Walt adding that there is very little legally that governs what is put on the front of boxes and packaging.
“For the most part, what is seen on the label can be held to be the truth. This is because South Africa has fairly complex food labelling laws and regulations. However, there is also no single regulatory authority for food labelling in South Africa,” says Bhaga.
Because of this, it is easy for marketers to make embellished claims to push their product, which can be a type of “health washing”.
There are three main types of health washing that we need to watch out for, Bhaga says.
The first is copy that implies a product is something it is not. Low or reduced sugar is a common claim, while the nutritional information table may reveal that the quantity of sugar “still exceeds the recommended limit”, she says.
The second type of health washing is adding unnecessary claims to foods to make them more appealing than competitor products. “Cooking oils claim to be cholesterol-free when, in reality, all oils are by nature cholesterol-free.”
The third type of health washing to be aware of includes “gimmicky phrases and health-trending terms”, says Bhaga. “Many companies have recently started labelling their products ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘plantbased’ as it is a popular shift in dietary preference.”
De Klerk says manufacturers will often use alternative names in place of ‘sugar’, for example.
“There are many names for sugar and this often becomes difficult with label reading. Sugar can be listed as glucose, dextrose, agave, fructose, honey, syrup, cane sugar, sucrose or coconut sugar.
“The same goes for salt – look out for ingredients such as sodium and monosodium glutamate (which is high in salt)”.
The use of artificial sweeteners is also on the rise and often a point of confusion for consumers, leading to the misconception that sweeteners are healthier than sugars. De Klerk says this is not always true.
“Some products made with sweetener are often higher in fat and may still contain the same amount of calories (for example, sugar-free
chocolates). Some sweeteners also cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, bloating and may have a laxative effect,” says De Klerk.
Van der Walt recommends xylitol as a healthier alternative.
“Xylitol is something that plants make although we don’t necessarily derive all of it from plants. It is a natural compound and, although it does contain calories, it doesn’t mess with your blood sugar levels in the same way as traditional sugar does,” he says.
There is, however, an issue with xylitol; it is considerably more expensive than traditional sugars, fetching between R169 and R179.95 for one kilogram at Dischem versus R26.99 for one kilogram of Selati white sugar from Shoprite.
Are we throwing good food away?
Another important piece of labelling information to look out for is date markings – the sell-by, use-by and best-before dates.
All three dieticians agree that although date markings are not an exact science and should be used as a guideline rather than gospel, they can serve an important purpose for consumer safety.
“These dates also help manufacturers, suppliers and retailers to track sales, quality standards and knowing when to get stock on and off the shelves with the least amount of lost ‘fresh’ shelf time,” explains Bhaga.
Sell-by dates are generally used by manufacturers to inform retailers how long the product should stay on the store shelf.
Discount shelves usually have food that has reached its sell-by but not its bestbefore date, says Bhaga, adding that best-before dates refer to the time period wherein the product is at its optimal quality and is not a direct indicator of whether the food is safe for consumption. Some foods can go well beyond this date.
“After its best-before date, a food item like coffee will still be fine to consume albeit less flavourful,” she says. “This will also depend on whether the storage and handling has been done in the correct manner to preserve quality and safety of the food.”
Bhaga says the use-by date is a bit trickier and is usually found on highly perishable food items such as meat, produce, dairy or ready-to-eat meals. This date is important as it relates directly to safety for consumption.
“It is not legal to sell or donate food past this date as the safety of the food may have been compromised past this point.”
Van der Walt says the number of food labels we find ourselves reading could be an indication of the amount of processed foods in our diet: “It could mean that you are not buying enough of what is referred to as ‘wholefoods’, which refers to food that comes straight from a farm, not a factory or production line, and contains minimal processing. Things Fibre meat, dairy, fruit, veg or eggs.”
There are grey areas that include food items such as bread. “Wholewheat, wholegrain and wholemeal bread are far less processed so we can lump them together with wholefoods,” says Van der Walt. “White bread and white starches such as chocolates, biscuits and cakes can be lumped together with ‘processed foods’ as they have gone through a high quantity of processing and have the same effect as processed foods on our health.”
When it comes to food labels and healthy eating, Van Der Walt’s advice to navigate an ocean of false information and the thousands of products constantly being marketed at us is: “If you are reading too many food labels, you are already losing the game because it means you are eating predominantly production-line, processed foods and your diet needs to change.”
For the most part, what is seen on the label can be held to be the truth. This is because South Africa has fairly complex food labelling laws