Understanding food labels

Posted on 16 July 2013

You can control what you put into your body, but it’s up to you to understand the fine print. Irene Labuschagne, principle dietitian at the Nutrition Information Centre of the University of Stellenbosch, checked the facts so you can make informed decisions about the food you eat.

What information is on a food label?
According to legislation, food labels must carry the name of the product; the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor; a list of all ingredients, where applicable; instructions for use; storage conditions, if any, and a sell-by or best-before date if this applies.

Nutritional claims such as ‘high in fibre’, ‘sugar free’ and ‘low fat’ must be accompanied by a nutritional table to substantiate the claim, and logos of endorsement bodies must have been approved by the Director-General of the Department of Health. If there are any common food allergens in the food, such as peanuts, soya and dairy products, these must be declared.

You probably have bought a pack of ‘100% fruit juice’ labelled as berry, with the front of the pack covered in an image of ripe, juicy berries, only to discover, on reading the ingredients list, that it’s actually mostly apple juice. Thanks to the new labelling laws, particularly the Quantitative Ingredient Declarations (QID), this is no longer allowed. According to the act, any product ingredient that’s emphasised in any way now must make up no less than two percent of the end result. So beware of products depicting generic photos of people or situations: for example, pet food that depicts the animal and not the ingredients at all. This shows how low in ‘real chicken’ or ‘lamb’ Fido’s dinner actually is.

How do I know what the main ingredient is?
Perhaps the most important labelling lesson is to learn is that any product’s ingredients are listed in order of mass. This means that the main ingredient needs to appear first, and so on right down to the smallest one. And now, every single ingredient must be listed, which is very helpful to people who suffer from food allergies. But be aware: certain ‘lightweight’ but potentially harmful ingredients can be listed in any order, towards the end of the list. These include herbs and spices constituting less than two percent of the product’s mass, vitamins, minerals and their derivatives, and food additives.

What should I keep an eye out for on the food label?
Small ingredients may look harmless, but it’s these you need to be particularly cautious of. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa advises you look for the words ‘salt’ or ‘sodium’ (not the same thing), and to avoid products where these appear anywhere but at the bottom of the list.

Read the nutritional information table on the label and find out how many grammes of sodium (Na) the food item contains. Multiply this number by 2,5 to calculate the amount of salt in grams. Use this as a rule when choosing foods containing salt: those that contain more than 1,5g per 100g are high in salt. Try to avoid these. Foods that have less than 0,3g per 100g are low in salt and healthier for you. Look for the Heart Mark to identify foods that are lower in salt content. Some products appear to have less salt than they do: ‘low sodium’ or ‘low salt’ means there’s less than 0,12g sodium for each 100 g, whereas ‘no salt’ or ‘salt free’ actually means there can be up to 0,005g sodium for each 100g.

Why does my favourite fruit juice no longer say ‘rich in’ goodness?
Don’t think a favourite product has changed its formula if its label no longer contains phrases like ‘rich in’, ‘excellent source’, ‘good source’, ‘enriched with X’, ‘with added Y’ or ‘contains Z’, ‘healthy’, ‘wholesome’ or ‘nutritious’, or no longer gives the impression of being endorsed by a healthcare practitioner, or is suddenly minus endorsements. By law, these claims are no longer permitted. Labels are also not allowed to claim or imply that the product can cure any medical condition.

How do I figure out how much fat is contained in a product?
Reducing fat intake is an important part of lowering cholesterol, but labels don’t always help. One misleading practice, says consumer watchdog Wendy Knowler, is ‘labelling a product “96% fat free” when a fat content of four percent is not even considered low fat, let alone fat free’. There are many more fat fibs. These are just some of them:

What it says                 What it means
No fat or fat free          Contains less than 0,5g of fat for each 100g or ml
Lower or reduced fat   Contains at least 25% less fat for each 100 g than the original
Low fat                        Contains less than 3g fat for each 100g, or 1,5g for each 100ml
Low in saturated fat    Contains no more than 1,5g for each 100g, or 0,75g for each 100ml
Lite or light                  Contains 25% fewer kilojoules than the comparative product
Lean                            Equal to or less than 10% of total fat
Extra lean                    Equal to or less than 5% of total fat
Low cholesterol           Contains 20mg for each 100g, or 10mg for each 100ml

And what about sugar content?
Many of us check labels for sugar content, as sugar has been linked to the global diabetes pandemic and obesity. With the new laws, foods that contain any type of sugar derivative, such as honey, molasses, sucrose, fruit-juice concentrate or high-fructose corn syrup, can’t claim to be ‘sugar free’.

What it says            What it means
Sugar free              Contains less than 0,5g sugar for each 100g
Reduced sugar       At least 25% less sugar for each serving than the original product
No added sugar     Sugar in any form has not been added as an ingredient
Unsweetened         No sugar or sweetener has been added

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The information provided in this article was correct at the time of publishing. At Mediclinic we endeavour to provide our patients and readers with accurate and reliable information, which is why we continually review and update our content. However, due to the dynamic nature of clinical information and medicine, some information may from time to time become outdated prior to revision.

Published in Nutrition