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How to Read a Food Label

You are what you eat, they say, but when you read the label on some food products, it can make you wonder exactly what it is you’re putting into your body. Caryn Gootkin finds out what you need to know to interpret food labels.
Image: iStock. Image: iStock.

Consumers are more interested than ever before in what goes into the food products they buy – and with good reason. They want to be able to make informed choices about what to eat and feed their families.

“On a very practical level,” says nutritional therapist Hannah Kaye, “if you have someone in the family with allergies or on a restrictive diet – no gluten, no lactose, etc – it becomes absolutely essential to read food labels correctly.”

The good news for concerned consumers is that South Africa has strict regulations about how food products must be labelled and how they may be advertised.

Information that must appear on a food label

Food producers and distributors use carefully designed labels to promote their products to consumers. To avoid misleading marketing and to empower consumers, the regulations provide that certain information must appear on a food label. This includes:

  • The name of the product and a description (if not obvious from the name);
  • A list of ingredients, in descending order of mass;
  • A list of all common allergens – egg, cow’s milk, gluten, goat’s milk, fish, seafood and molluscs, tree nuts and peanuts;
  • Storage conditions;
  • Net contents in metric units;
  • Country of origin;
  • Date – best before/use by/sell by;
  • If nutritional claims are made on the product, the Typical Nutritional Information Table in the prescribed format; and
  • For vegetarian food – whether its lacto-/ovo-/or vegan.

The Nutritional Information Table

The law requires producers and distributors of food products with nutritional claims to include specific information on their labels. “Products without nutritional claims don’t have to contain nutritional information, but it’s usually added voluntarily to most food products,” says Steenkamp. Either way, this information must be contained in a prescribed format.

The table below, taken from the regulations, shows how nutritional information must be presented. Note the difference between the two columns – the first shows values per 100g of product, the second values per serving size, which differs from product to product.

For Kaye, two of the most important things to look for in a product are trans fats and sodium. “If you pick up something that contains trans fats, put it back. We know they’re linked to chronic disease. Also avoid high sodium (salt content), especially in ready meals and kids’ meals.”

How healthy is ‘healthy’ food?

The law forbids certain types of claims made in connection with food products. It also prohibits using the word “healthy”, and any words or symbols that mean the same – such as “wholesome”, “nutritious”, “full of goodness” – in connection with food products. This means the words can’t form part of the name of a product or be used on labels or in marketing material. “The law only allows claims made within measurable parameters,” says Steenkamp. “This is designed to protect the consumer, because how do we define ‘healthy’? What’s good for you might not be good for me.”

Can you trust words such as ‘light’ and ‘reduced’ on food labels?

One type of claim that can legally be made on food labels (and in marketing food products) is a claim about the nutrient content of the food (“high in fibre”, “low in fat”, “no added sugar”, “high in vitamin C”). Comparative claims (“light”, “reduced fat”) are also allowed.

“Both the nutrient content and the wording of claims are legislated,” explains Steenkamp. “So a product can only claim to be high in vitamin C if it contains at least 60mg of vitamin C per serving. Also, food distributors should only use words like ‘reduced’, ‘less than’ and ‘light’ when comparing different versions of the same foodstuff. Products must be clearly labelled showing the difference in the relevant nutrient. And you can only make comparative claims if this difference is at least 25%.”

The “light” version of the product must clearly state that, for example, “35g of this bar (half a bar) contains 36% less energy and 28% less sugar than the regular bar”. Steenkamp, who often advises companies on compliance with food labelling laws, knows from experience that “this is a lot of information to fit on a small bar”.

What does the future hold?

The current food labelling regulations are in the process of being replaced. “There are a few significant changes the new regulations will bring that will protect the consumer, some of which are rather stringent for the likes of retailers, restaurants and marketers of foodstuffs,” says trade mark attorney Karen Kitchen.

Kitchen highlights one that many consumers – but very few fast-food chains – will welcome: the prohibition on marketing unhealthy food and beverages to children under the age of 18, which will include a ban on gifts to encourage children to consume unhealthy foods. Now that’s food for thought!

What are E numbers?

E numbers are allocated on an international basis to all additives, including vitamins, to create consistency throughout the world. In many countries, only the E number is given in the ingredients list. Fortunately, South African law doesn’t require E numbers. “We are more protected here than in other countries,” says Steenkamp. “South African food producers have to list additives by name – they can’t hide behind E numbers.”

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