23 March 2010

SA's new food label regulations

The new SA Food Labelling Regulations have finally been published, after a 17-year wait, and will help consumers make more informed decisions when buying foods.

Food manufacturers, nutritionists and the public have been waiting for what was termed the “new” SA Food Labelling Regulations since 1993 when the last set of regulations governing food labelling and advertising was published in this country.

Seventeen years is a long time to wait, but now at last, on 1 of March 2010, the Department of Health published “New Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs” as part of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectant Act.

What does this mean to the consumer?

The entire purpose of these revised and updated Food Labelling Regulations is to make life easier for consumers by providing them with additional and relevant information on the labels of the foods they purchase, and to regulate what is said in food advertisements.

Both these improvements will permit consumers to make more informed decisions when selecting foodstuffs.

These new Food Labelling Regulations will cause a flurry of activity in manufacturing circles as manufacturers rush to make their labels and their advertising comply with the many new stipulations of these regulations.

Probably the most relevant changes for consumers are those labelling specifications that refer to nutritional value claims which have often confused the public.

According to the new regulations no manufacturer may make a nutrition claim about his food product unless that food has been analysed in an accredited laboratory and the content of the specific nutrient or nutrients is greater than a specified amount per serving.

The wording permitted to announce that a food contains a lot or very little of a nutrient has also been specified, as follows:

  • Terms that have been banished include: “rich in, excellent source, good source, enriched X, with added Y, or contains Z”
  • Terms that are permitted are: “Low, free or virtually free, source, high or very high”

In addition to restricting the descriptive terms that may be used to describe the nutritive properties of foods, the new regulations lay down precise guidelines for determining which descriptive term may be used in each nutrient category.

For example a food can only be labelled as “Low” in energy if it contains not more than 170 kJ per 100g (solids) or 80 kJ per 100 ml (liquids). Conversely a food can only be labelled as “High in energy” if it provides 950 kJ per 100g (solids) or 250 kJ per 100 ml (liquids).

This means that a number of foods which have been selling as low-energy or energy-reduced foods will no longer qualify and that many foods that have been touted as “energy-rich” especially for athletes and people suffering from HIV/Aids will also either have to change their formulas or their ads.

The specifications for fat also give clear-cut guidance to the public:

  • Foods can only be labelled as “Low fat” if they contain not more than 3 g of total fat per 100g (solids) or 1.5g of total fat per 100 ml (liquids)
  • For saturated fat, the food may only be labelled as “Low in saturated fat” if it contains not more than 1.5 g per 100 g (solids) or 0.75 g per 100 ml (liquids) and not more than 10% of the energy content

This should make the selection of low energy and low fat foods much easier.

Prohibited statements

As a dietician I welcome the list of prohibited statements specified in the new regulations, namely:

  • No food may be labelled or advertised to create the impression that it is supported or endorsed by a health practitioner (e.g. medical doctor, dietician, etc) or be endorsed or associated with an individual where such a testimonial implies a nutrition claim (Mrs X has lost 20 kg by using product Y)
  • The use of the terms “health” or “healthy”, or “wholesome or nutritious” 
  • The implication that a given food provides complete or balanced nutrition 
  • That the food can “cure” any medical condition

Negative claims

We are all aware of sales tactics where a manufacturer states that, for example, olive oil A is “cholesterol-free”, whereas if you think about this statement, you will realise that all plant oils do not contain any cholesterol and that the claim mentioned above, is actually misleading.

The manufacturer of the olive oil will be permitted to say “A naturally cholesterol free food” to indicate to the public that it is not only his olive oil, but all olive and other plant oils that are free of cholesterol.

However, when additives that are permitted in a certain class of food and a manufacturer produces a product that does not contain that additive, he will be allowed to inform the public that his product is for example “MSG free”.

The statement “No added sugar” is prohibited if the food or beverage should contain “added sugar” as defined in the new regulations, namely sugar, honey, molasses, sucrose, coloured sugar, fruit juice concentrate, deflavoured and/or deionised fruit juice and concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup and malt, or any other syrup of various origins.

In other words, those products that have been advertised as “No sugar added” because no sucrose or table sugar has been included in their formulations, but that do contain fruit juice or concentrates or fructose or honey or any of the above mentioned sugar-containing components, will no longer be able to claim that they are “sugar-free”.

Allergens and Additives

I am also pleased that common allergens (gluten, milk, eggs, soya, peanuts and tree nuts, shellfish or crustaceans, or significant cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats, and titricale which is a cross between wheat and rye) must be indicated on food labels.

Additives such as Tartrazine (E 102 or Yellow No. 5), MSG, sulphur dioxide and related compounds (sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, hydrogen sulphites and metabisulphites) must also be declared on labels.

Uncommon allergens (i.e. an allergen which is not classified as a common allergen as described above), must be disclosed by manufacturers upon request by a consumer, inspector or the Department of Health. 

These provisions will make life much easier for those consumers who suffer from allergies or sensitivities to avoid foods and beverages which contain the specific allergen or allergens they react to.

Date of commencement

These new labelling regulations will become mandatory 12 months after the date of publication, in other words on the 1st of March 2011. The only exception, is the regulation referring to misleading nutrient content claims mentioned above under ‘Negative claims’ which must be in place within 3 months.

A second phase of regulations which has been promised for later this year will define issues such as food advertising to children, the glycaemic index (GI) and a list of foods that are considered nonessential for a healthy diet.

It has been a long, long wait, but the Directorate of Food Control of the Department of Health is to be congratulated for making our new SA Labelling Regulations a reality.

(Reference: Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). Regulations relating to the labelling & advertising of foodstuffs. No. R 146. Government Gazette, No 32975, 1 March 2010)

(Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, March 2010)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


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