Understanding food labels

Understanding food labels

Understanding how to read food labels is important to help you make healthier food choices for you and your family. Food labels can sometimes be overwhelming if you do not know what information to look for. This blog will help you to find those essential information which you’ll need to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy products.

1. The nutrition value table

You will find this table on the back of most products and will look like something in line of the picture below.

Usually, the package will indicate the serving size and the amount of servings the product have. But be cautious as the serving size may not always be the same as the packaging size. Always compare products by using values underneath the “100 g” column as this is more accurate than serving sizes.

What is healthy and what is not?

A good indication is to use this table below to compare your product with.

Apated from the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.


Products with a low fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt/sodium content should be consumed often while foods with a high fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt/sodium content should rather be avoided. These foods may have little vitamins and minerals that is needed for optimal health and may increase your risk of being overweight or obese if consumed on a daily basis.

Important nutrients to take note of on the food label


Added sugar/of which are sugar refers to the amount of sugar that is added to the product or how much the product naturally contains. It is advised to limit added sugars to less than 10% of your total energy intake per day and preferably less than 5% per day. This is approximately 25 g or 6 teaspoons of sugar per day, but may differ depending on your weight, height and level of physical activity.

Saturated fats, also known as bad fats and fats that are usually solid at room temperature. These fats have been associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and should be consumed less frequently and in smaller amounts.

Sodium: Too much sodium can cause hypertension, which can ultimately lead to various cardiovascular diseases. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa Advise to limit salt intake to no more than 5 g/1 tsp per day (this is equivalent to 2000 mg sodium). Highly processed foods are usually high in saturated fats and sodium and should be avoided if possible or consumed less frequently.

Dietary fiber is needed for various health reasons such as help maintaining a healthy gut, lowers blood cholesterol levels, stabilizes blood sugar, play a key role in managing a healthy weight and many more. For women it is advised to consume 25 g of fiber per day while men should consume 38 g of fiber per day. Thus, the higher the fiber amount on the label, the better. Aim for at least 3 g per of fiber per serving.

Vitamins and minerals. When food products contain vitamins and minerals, the amounts will usually be indicated as well as the “% NRV” values. The % NRV refers to the percentage “Nutrient Reference Value” and is an indication of the daily requirements your product/one serving thereof has.

A quick and easy way to have all of these information is to look at the front of label information on the product. It will look something like the picture below:

The percentages (%) refer to the % of an adult’s daily reference intake. This is usually based on a diet of approximately 8 700 kJ. Note that your energy intake may look much different depending on your gender, weight, height and activity levels, so do not use the percentages as the golden standard.

2. List of ingredients

The list of ingredients is always listed in order of weight/amounts used. The ingredients that is used in the greatest amounts are listed first and those used in small amounts are listed last. Thus, look out for the type of ingredients which are listed first. Products with sugar, saturated fats and salt are probably not very healthy. Sometimes terms other than sugar, saturated fat or salt is used.

Other words for sugar: Brown sugar, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, dextrose, treacle, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt, malt extract, maltose, isomaltose, maltodextrin, maple syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, sugar, cane sugar.

Other words for saturated fats: Animal fat, beef fat, butter, chocolate, carob, coconut oil, cream, dripping, ghee, hydrogenated oils, lard, margarine, milk solids, monoglycerides, palm oil, seeds, nuts, coconut, tallow, shortening, trans fats, vegetable fat.

Other words for salt: Baking soda, MSG (monosodium glutamate) or any other word containing the term sodium, nitrates and nitrites.

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