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Updated 26 July 2012

Food labelling

You can't trust the nutritional information labels on food products in South Africa.

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You can't trust the nutritional information labels on food products in South Africa.

It's a messy business. There are regulations and guidelines, but they aren't enforced, with the result that food manufacturers can - and do - pretty much claim anything they want.

You'll find 'low fat' labels on cheese that contains double the fat volumes low-fat is supposed to indicate. You'll find 'fat-free' labels on, for instance, jelly-based sweets, which is a bit like saying 'additive-free' on the apple just plucked off the tree - it was never going to be an issue.

If you're going to manage your intake, you need to become as good at decoding the "nutrition-information" box on food labels, as home-buyers become in decoding estate-agent-speak. If you know what to look out for, you can decide for yourself whether a product is really "low-fat", "high-fibre", or "sodium-free".

Here's what the terms mean, and what you should look out for:

Per 150g serving - Check whether the values are listed per serving or whether they refer to nutrient value per 100g. The 100g values make it easy to compare different products with each other. The serving values are useful when adding up nutrients obtained from different foods throughout the day.

% RDA - RDA stands for "Recommended Dietary Allowance," the recommended daily amounts of nutrients for healthy adults. These amounts are ballpark figures and may vary slightly according to gender, age and conditions such as pregnancy. %RDA refers to the contribution, in percentage, a product makes towards the overall daily allowance.

Energy - In South Africa, energy value must be expressed in kilojoules (kJ) - even though some manufacturers still use kilocalories (often just termed "calories"). A food/beverage that contains less than 170kJ per 100g or less than 80kJ per 100ml is low in energy. But most products don't meet this stringent requirement - even though some make the "lite" claim.

Protein - Looking for a food that's high in protein? Then it needs to contain at least 10g of protein per 100g. Be on the lookout for products that make "high-protein" claims and remember that animal protein is generally of better quality than plant protein. Look for animal products (such as meat, cheese, milk) on the ingredients list.

Carbohydrates - sometimes expressed as energy. If you're an athlete or a diabetic, you'd be interested in this value. Carbs are supposed to be our main source of energy. A product is high in carbohydrates if it contains 13g per 100g or 6,5g per 100ml.

Total fat - A "low-fat" food should contain no more than 3g total fat per 100g and a "low-fat" beverage no more than 1,5g per 100ml. But many manufacturers still make this claim, even though their products aren't really low fat. A prime example is 2% milk, which contains 2g fat.

Saturated fat - This is an important value to check if you're at risk of heart disease. Look for foods that have low values - i.e. foods/beverages that contain less than 1g saturated fat per 100g or less than 0,75g per 100ml. Don't believe every claim that's made. If a manufacturer says a food contains 50% less saturated fat than similar products, check it out yourself.

Trans fatty acids - These are fats that have been linked to heart disease and cancer. Go for products that have less than 0,1g trans fatty acids per 100g or 100ml. Pastries, chips and cookies are common culprit foods - check their content.

Cholesterol - High cholesterol? Don't forget to check this value. Products that contain less than 20mg per 100g or 10mg per 100ml are a safe bet. Don't be fooled by "zero-cholesterol" product claims if the product wouldn't have contained cholesterol in the first place, such as sunflower, canola and olive oil.

Dietary fibre - This is an essential nutrient that ensures good bowel function and lowers blood-fat levels. As most of us eat too little, you'll benefit by including more fibre-rich foods in your diet. A food needs to contain 6g fibre per 100g or 3g per 100ml to be able to make the "high-fibre" claim.

Sodium - As sodium could raise blood pressure levels, you should aim to get no more than 2,4g per day. Note that a product can only be classified as "sodium-free" if it contains less than 5mg of sodium per serving.

Vitamins and minerals - Vitamins and minerals are good for you, so go for products that are good sources. Make sure to check the %RDA column though. The list of vitamins and minerals may seem impressive, but on closer inspection, you might find that the product contributes very little to your recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Ingredients - Don't forget to zoom in on this list. As ingredients are ordered by weight, from highest to lowest, it will give you a good idea of what the main ingredients are. Think twice about buying the product if fat, salt or sugar made it to the top three ingredients.

 
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