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Updated 25 April 2016

How to read food labels

Food labels can be a confusing task but knowing what's in the food you eat can help you make better choices. Health24's dietitian explains all you need to know.

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Food labels can be puzzling - they contain a large amount of information such as the weight of the food, ingredients and storage conditions, amongst others.

Whilst many of us don’t take the time to read food labels, it holds information about the food that is important to our health.

Read: Are you fooled into buying these 'healthy' foods?

To prevent you from spending hours reading food labels, we have put together a list of important information to take note of on your food label.

The two key places to look for nutrition-related information are the ingredients list and the nutritional information table.

Let’s take a closer look at this information to get a better understanding of what it means.

1. Ingredients list

The ingredients are listed in order of weight, with the largest quantity first. If a product lists ingredients that you are trying to have less of at the beginning of the list, you would know that the product contains more of those ingredients than the ones at the end of the list and you may want to find a more suitable alternative.

Fats, salt and sugar are normally called various names, which is useful to know so that you are able to identify them more easily.

Sugar can be called cane sugar, honey, maltose, maltodextrin, glucose, corn syrup, fructose, dextrose, sucrose or high fructose corn syrup.

Fats can be called vegetable fats, hydrogenated fats, lard, shortening, coconut oil or palm kernel oil.

Salt can be called sodium, a word which may appear in combination with other terms such as monosodium glutamate or MSG.

2. Nutritional information table

The nutritional information table provides information about the energy and nutrients a product contains. The key things to look for in this table are the energy, protein, carbohydrates, sugar, fats, fibre and sodium content. The information is usually presented per 100g or 100ml and per the recommended serving size.

The best way to decide if a product is suitable for you is to evaluate the nutrients per 100g or 100ml, as products have different recommended serving sizes and the serving indicated on the label can be either less or more that what you normally consume.

When comparing products, the same rule applies, look at the 100g or 100ml information as you will then be comparing like for like.

How do I interpret the energy value on the table?

Energy: by understanding how much energy a food item provides, as well as knowing how much is needed for us to maintain, lose or gain weight, we can evaluate whether a product is suitable as a meal or snack or neither.

The standard unit of measurement for food energy is kilojoules in South Africa. Product labels may represent the energy information in both kilojoules and calories (1 calorie (kcal) = 4.18 kilojoules). Terms such as “reduced”, “less than”, “fewer”, “light” or “lite” have little meaning if you do not have a reference to the energy or nutrient value of the original product and should not be used as the key deciding factor between two products.  

A point about protein: Protein is important for cell repair and growth and if consumed in excess can lead to weight gain, as with overconsumption of other nutrients such a fat or carbohydrate. In order for a product to qualify for a high in protein claim, it needs to contain 10g/100g or 5g/100ml, as well as meet certain quality criteria.

Get clever about the carbs you choose: The glycaemic carbohydrate value includes sugars and starches that are available to the body for metabolism. Fruit, vegetables, breads, crackers, grains, cereals, milk and milk products all contain carbohydrates.

The glycaemic carbohydrate value is followed by the total amount of sugar a product contains. This value does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars such as those found in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose) and added sugars.

‘Sugar free’ claims can only be used when a product contains ≤ 0.5 g sugar per 100g/ml product. The dietary fiber value can be used as a guideline to choose carbohydrate foods. These foods are high in fibre if the fibre content is ≥6 g per 100g (AOAC method of analysis, as shown at the bottom of the table).

According to the Council of the European Union regulation of 2006 a products are low in sugar of the product contains no more than 5 g sugars per 100g solids or 2.5 g of sugars per 100 ml liquids. As most breakfast cereals contain more than this we recommend you to use the upper limit of 12.5 g sugar for breakfast cereals as recommended by the UK food Standards Agency

Finding out about fat: A manufacturer may only make a claim of ‘low fat’ if the total fat content of the product is ≤(less than)3g/100g and ≤1.5g/100ml. Very few protein-rich foods meet this recommendation and therefore is a better tool to evaluate carbohydrate-rich foods. Foods high in protein should contain ≤10g total fat/100g. The fat value is also broken down to show the types of fats the product contains. Preference should be given to products which contain more unsaturated vs. saturated fats, within the context of the total fat the product provides.

A word on salt: Salt is found naturally in many foods like meat and vegetables but is also added to foods to improve taste and shelf life. It is recommended that you should limit your salt intake to a maximum of 2000mg sodium per day that equals 5g (1 teaspoon) of salt in total. A product labeled ‘low salt’ should contain ≤120mg sodium/100g product or ≤300 mg salt/100g product (1g salt = 400mg sodium).

To avoid spending your entire day reading labels in shopping aisles, look at the nutrition information of the products on company websites before you go shopping and make a short list of the key values mentioned here to assess your product against.

If you have a diet related question, ask our dietitians.

**This article has focused on nutrition-related information on food labels and not additives, food processing methods or endorsements.

Read more:

Why 'healthy' food labels make us eat more

10 healthy alternatives to the ‘bad’ foods we love

SA's food label regulations

References

1. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972), R.146, 1 March 2010.
2. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/

The dietitians from Nutritional Solutions are Health24's expert team of registered dietitians.

 
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