Food – Reading Food Labels

Food – Reading Food Labels

These days people are becoming a lot more aware of what is added or removed from food products and are learning to keep a close eye on what is displayed on the food label. Many products try and deceive us by expressing the nutritional value of the product in hidden terms, but there are ways of monitoring this and getting what you need from the label or “nutritional value” table. Luckily there is a South African Food Legislation Document in the pipeline which will help to regulate what is allowed to be put onto food labels, but for now learning how to understand a food label will go a long way. Some food labels can be very simple; others can become quite complicated and offer a large amount of information. Here’s what to look for:

Total Fat content

For a food to be considered “low fat”, it should contain less than 3g fat per 100g. “Fat free” foods should contain less than 0.5g fat per 100g. Watch out for labels that say “reduced fat” or “90% fat free” because this does not actually mean that it is low in fat. A “reduced fat” product only needs to have 25% less fat than the original product so can still have quite a high fat content! Remember that although “low fat” is less than 3g fat per 100g, this doesn’t mean that you only have to choose foods that are that low in fat. As long as you ensure that your entire meal contains around 10g-13g of fat you are on track.

Saturated fat, Unsaturated fat and Trans fatty acid content

The more detailed labels will break fat content down into total fat, saturated fat, unsaturated fat and lately even trans fatty acids are labeled. Choose products with a greater percentage of unsaturated fats and try to avoid trans fatty acids as much as possible. Look out for the term “hydrogenated vegetable oils” in the ingredient list as this is another term for trans fatty acids. Keep in mind that even too much of the “good fat” can be harmful.

Energy content

This is one of the trickier things to recognize. Sometimes a product can boast that it has ZERO or NIL fat but in reality it actually has a high energy content. Energy that is not used up efficiently through daily activities or exercise is stored in the body and converted to fat. Energy can be expressed in calories (cal) or kilojoules (kJ). Each calorie is equivalent to 4.2 joules. These days most people refer to kilojoules. This is 1,000 times greater than a joule. So 1 kilocalorie (1 kcal= 1000 cal) is equivalent to 4.2 kJ. It is important to be aware of how much energy a food product contains, but just counting the calories can often lead to one not including sufficient nutrients in the diet.


Carbohydrates are a rich form of energy but this also depends on its form. Simple and complex carbohydrates release glucose into the blood at varying rates and this has lead to many products indicating a Glycaemic Index value. Carbohydrate foods that break down quickly during digestion have the highest G.I. factors. Conversely, carbohydrates, which break down slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream, have low G.I. factors.

Low G.I. (Less than 55)
Intermediated G.I. (55 – 70)
High G.I. (More than 70)

If you are looking for a food product that can provide a lasting energy release then one with a low G.I. is better. If you require energy quickly, then one with a higher G.I. is better.


Protein is usually given as a single value or as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults. It is recommended that the amount of protein you eat makes up 15 – 20% of your diet.


These values are indicated as either a total value or are broken down into soluble dietary fibre and insoluble dietary fibre. Fibre is essential, but as with anything else, too much of a good thing can do more harm. A food which is an excellent source of fibre will contain at least 5g fibre per 100g, but as long as you look out for foods that contain at least 2.5g fibre per 100g you are making a good choice.

Vitamins and minerals

Products containing any vitamins or minerals are very eager to display them and have numerous ways of doing so. It is better to get your minerals and vitamins naturally from your food rather than taking supplements. By reading the labels you will be able to see what nutrients you are eating. The packaging is only allowed to mention a vitamin or mineral if it will provide at least 1/3 of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). Just remember that food preparation and various food combinations can have a large effect on how many nutrients your body will actually absorb.


Many preservatives such as Tartrazine, Mono Sodium Glutamate (MSG) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) can cause allergic reactions and are usually clearly displayed on the label. Those products that do not contain them are even more graphic at ensuring that the customer sees that that are “preservative free”.

In a nutshell, there is much about a product that can be learnt from its label. If there isn’t a label, this can be a sign to be cautious. If there is no nutritional value table but there is an ingredient list you will be able to have an idea of what the nutrition content is- if the first few ingredients are high fat or high sugar ingredients then be wary of the product.

So next time you go shopping make sure you have a few more minutes to glance at the food labels and fill your basket with a healthier selection of groceries.

Posted on November 17, 2011, in Daily Post and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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