Learning how to read and understand food labels can help you make healthier choices.

It can help you to avoid or limit foods or components that you want to avoid, or are allergic to.

According to South African 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.

If there are any common food allergens in the food, such as peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fish, soya, gluten, any significant cereals (such as wheat) and dairy products, these must be declared.

The list of ingredients is printed in descending order according to mass. This means that the main ingredient needs to appear first, and so on right down to the smallest one. If a food such as a pasta sauce has fat (oil, hydrogenated vegetable fat, creamer, fat powder) near the top of the list (i.e. listed amongst the first 3items), it could contain a lot of fat.

In addition to the Nutritional Information Table, a lot of foods today also come with nutrient content claims provided by the manufacturer. These claims are typically featured in ads for the foods or in the promotional copy on the food packages them­ selves. Nutritional claims such as 'high in fibre', 'low sodium' 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.

Here are some tips for making the most of the information on the food label:

Where to Start

Note the size of a single serving and how many servings are in the package. Look at the serving size and how many servings you’re really consuming. If you double the servings you eat, you double the energy.

Total Energy

Foods that contain a high quantity of fat or sugar should be kept to a minimum.

Remember, foods that contain a little sugar to improve taste can be enjoyed, especially if they are low in fat, have a low GI and are high in fiber (e.g. baked beans, breakfast cereal, low fat yogurt). The Glycaemic Index (GI) is a measure of how fast, and to what extent, a carbohydrate food affects blood glucose levels. By choosing low GI carbohydrates in combination with low-fat foods, heart health and blood pressure may be improved. For those wanting to lose weight, low GI carbohydrate foods digest slower, may be more filling and reduce insulin levels (used for fat storage) which may enhance weight loss.

Some foods will say “no added sugar” but will still be high in natural sugar (e.g. fruit sugar). These options are not ideal. All sugar should be taken into consideration when planning overall meal plan.

Added sugar is defined as sugar, honey, molasses, coloured sugar, fruit juice concentrate, deflavoured and/or de-ionised fruit juice and concentrates thereof, high fructose corn syrup or any other syrup. The claim “no added sugar” can only be used if none of the above are added to the product.

Foods that are labelled “lite” or “diet” or “low energy” are usually (but not always) suitable. For example, diet cold drinks are acceptable but certain “diet” foods (e.g. diet chocolate) are relatively high in kilojoules compared to many other available options and therefore not a good choice if one wants to restrict kilojoule consumption.

Fats: Important facts about fat that we can get from food labels

Fat intake should be limited, especially saturated- and trans fats found in animal fats, full-cream dairy products, chocolate, coconut, hard margarine, full cream products, baked goods (e.g. pies and cookies) and palm oils (e.g. coffee creamers and artificial cream).

Determine how much fat is in the food: for example, compare the amount of fat in 100g of different brands of food. In general, aim to purchase only food with ≤ 3g fat per 100g of the food item. Remember that some foods that may not taste fatty can be high in hidden fat – thus always check food labels.

Two examples of breakfast cereal:

It’s important to choose products with little or no trans fat. Remember that trans fatty acids are naturally present in dairy products, but it’s the trans fat in hardened fat that you must avoid. If the product says that it is “Trans Fat Free”, this means that there is less than 1g trans fat per 100g of the total fat in the product.


Salt is composed of sodium and chloride. Sodium has been the cause of some concern as excess sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure and other related diseases. Read the nutritional information table on the label and find out how many milligrams of sodium (Na) the food item contains. Multiply this number by 2.5 to calculate the amount of salt in milligrams (divide this value by 1000 to get the salt value 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 salt per 100g are low in salt and is a much better choice. 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” 120mg sodium for each 100g, whereas “virtually free from sodium” actually means there can be up to 5mg sodium for each 100g.