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.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LABELLING
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.
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
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 VS CALORIES
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.
SUGAR AND FATS
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.