Diet – Decoding Food La­bels

Mas­ter­ing the art of read­ing food la­bels will help you make in­formed food choices, and un­der­stand the nu­tri­tional value of the items on your gro­cery list


When gro­cery shop­ping, do you ever take a sec­ond to read through the in­gre­di­ents inside the food items you’re about to toss into your trol­ley? Many of us don’t pay at­ten­tion to food la­bels yet the in­gre­di­ents lists con­tain fig­ures that are vi­tal to help­ing us un­der­stand what we con­sume. Yes, the num­bers and per­cent­ages listed on every prod­uct can be daunt­ing, espe­cially if you don’t quite get what they mean. To help trans­form you from con­fused to an in­formed con­sumer, we break­down the com­mon nu­tri­tional in­for­ma­tion on food pack­ages to help you shop and eat bet­ter.


Food la­bels in­form you about the serv­ing size, num­ber of serv­ings, the calo­ries con­tained and the nu­tri­tional value of the food you’re about to eat, ex­plains Mayuri Bhawan, a Sand­ton-based di­eti­cian. “Learn­ing how to read and un­der­stand food la­bels can help you make health­ier choices,” she says. Than­dol­wakhe Mabuza, a di­eti­cian spe­cial­ist, says food la­bels are there to pre­vent you from be­ing mis­led. “Cer­tain types of food la­bels can de­ceive you into be­liev­ing you’re con­sum­ing a healthy prod­uct, when you’re not ac­cord­ing to the nu­tri­tional ta­ble,” she says.

Prod­ucts sport­ing The Heart Foun­da­tion’s red heart logo show that they’re a health­ier op­tion. The foun­da­tion’s nu­tri­tion­ist, Dr Bianca van der Westhuizen says prod­ucts bear­ing their logo have been put through a se­ries of rig­or­ous tests. “The Heart Mark only ap­pears on prod­ucts af­ter they’ve gone through our strict process, which in­cludes lab tests to mea­sure lev­els of sat­u­rated fats, trans fats, sodium (salt), added sugar and fi­bre,” she ex­plains, adding that the process is ap­proved by the Na­tional Depart­ment of Health. The nu­tri­tional cri­te­ria are based on the lat­est lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional di­etary guide­lines.



Bhawan ex­plains how to de­ci­pher this in­for­ma­tion. “The nu­tri­tional ta­ble pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about the en­ergy and nu­tri­ents a prod­uct con­tains. The key things to look for are the en­ergy, pro­tein, car­bo­hy­drates, sugar, fats, fi­bre and sodium con­tent. The best way to de­cide if a prod­uct is suit­able for you is to eval­u­ate the nu­tri­ents per 100 g or 100 ml be­cause prod­ucts have dif­fer­ent rec­om­mended serv­ing sizes, and the serv­ing in­di­cated on the la­bel may be ei­ther less or more than you nor­mally con­sume.”


Mabuza says the most im­por­tant nu­tri­tional value to con­sider is en­ergy, which is mea­sured in kilo­joules. “The en­ergy con­tent is what you’ll con­sume when eat­ing or drink­ing what­ever you’ve bought. Nor­mally, en­ergy should be be­tween 350 and 450 kilo­joules per 100 grams serv­ing, be­cause any­thing higher or more dense tends to have a lot more sugar, high-fat con­tent and re­fined starch which isn’t the health­i­est op­tion.”


Kilo­joules and calo­ries mean the same thing but South Africa mea­sures en­ergy con­tent in kilo­joules, which al­ways ap­pear as kJ. “If a food’s en­ergy value is listed as 500 kJ per por­tion, then this is how much en­ergy you’ll in­gest when you eat a por­tion of this food. The con­fu­sion arises when the la­bel ex­presses the en­ergy con­tent in kilo-calo­ries (kcal). So, if you see a fig­ure that says 50 cal and an­other that says 50 kcal, it means the same thing,” van der Westhuizen adds.


The ‘% Daily Value (DV)’ tells you the per­cent­age of each nu­tri­ent in a sin­gle serv­ing, in terms of the dai­lyrec­om­mended amount. “As a guide, if you want to con­sume less of a nu­tri­ent (such as sat­u­rated fat or sodium), choose foods with a lower % DV — prefer­ably 5 per­cent or less,” Bhawan says.

“There are cer­tain vi­ta­mins, like Vi­ta­min A, and min­er­als that are risky should you ex­ceed the re­quired daily limit. So prod­ucts that might con­tain those min­er­als will give you a per­cent­age break­down of how much is in the prod­uct. Ul­ti­mately, it’s all about bal­anc­ing your nu­tri­ents in­take,” Mabuza ex­plains.


Ac­cord­ing to South African law, a man­u­fac­turer can only make a claim of ‘low-fat’ if the to­tal fat con­tent of the prod­uct is less than 3 grams per 100 grams in solid food and less than 1,5 grams for liq­uids, Bhawan ex­plains. Any­thing higher isn’t a healthy food op­tion.

Other names for sat­u­rated fat in­clude: Lard, suet, palm oil, veg­etable short­en­ing, ghee and drip­ping. “La­bels should show how much sugar (added and nat­u­ral) are in a prod­uct. Choose prod­ucts con­tain­ing 10 grams sugar or less per 100 grams of prod­uct,” Bhawan adds.

Other names for added sugar are: Dex­trose, fruc­tose, glu­cose, su­crose and mal­tose.


When buy­ing pro­cessed foods, check the car­bo­hy­drate con­tent and en­sure that it’s be­tween 15-20 grams per 100 grams. “Foods high in car­bo­hy­drates (fresh fruit, ce­re­als, breads, grains, canned veg­eta­bles) should con­tain 3 g or less of fat per 100g,” Bhawan says.


Choose breads and ce­re­als with 3 g or more per serv­ing. Not all la­bels show the fi­bre con­tent.


Go for lower sodium op­tions. Food with less than 400 mg per 100g is good, and less than 120 mg per 100g is best.

In­gre­di­ents with high salt con­tent: cel­ery, onion, veg­etable or gar­lic salt, meat/yeast ex­tract, monosodium glu­ta­mate (MSG), rock or sea salt, stock cubes, sodium bi­car­bon­ate, sodium ni­trate.

Or­ganic food: There isn’t one stan­dard­ised la­belling for or­ganic food. “Man­u­fac­tur­ers will punt that their food is or­ganic but there isn’t a spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tion on la­belling that I know of,” Mabuza ex­plains.

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