Interpreting Food Labels

Food labeling laws in South Africa are some of the best labelling laws in the world. Since 2010 the Department of Health instituted that all products produced or imported and then sold in this country abide by certain rules and regulations. This is ultimately to protect the end user to know what is in the product and also to empower people to make wiser choices.

Why should you learn to read a food label?

  • Nutritional Information in a standard format
  • Allergy Warnings for any allergy sufferers
  • Allows an individual to make informed choices about what food they should buy based on the contents
  • Allows for easy comparison of products
  • Assists in disease management (especially with food logos and ingredient lists)
  • Allows a consumer to know what they are paying for, particularly in the case of meat products, where often brine is injected into the meat to make it weigh more – this now has to be declared.

Food Labels are wonderful tools to use in improving health, see below for some important things to look out for on a food label:

Nutrition Facts Food Label

1. The ingredient list is always written from largest ingredient to smallest ingredient.
2. Allergens are often mentioned in their own section for any allergy sufferers, or often the allergen is put into brackets after the ingredient on the ingredient list.
3. The macronutrients and micronutrients are in a standard format for easy reference and comparison.
4. The portion size – check if this is the portion you would eat, and then if so, the nutrient values would be an accurate indication of what you will be consuming.
5. Check the total energy value. Often indicated in calories and kilojoules, although in South Africa, the normal would be kilojoules (see section 1 on how to convert to calories or vice versa). This can be used for checking total energy intake for a day, or determining if this is a high energy or low energy product.
6. Check total fat and also read more information below about saturated fat, unsaturated fat (mono- and poly- unsaturated fat) and transfats (see section 1 for more information AND the table below for the ideal ranges).
7. Check fibre content and aim for a high fibre content, remembering that the total aim for a day is between 25 – 30g per day.

Food Logos Useful in Disease Management

Food Labels to encourage clients to look out for if they are Diabetic:

Diabetes SA

Food Labels to encourage clients to look out for if they suffer from heart disease:


Ideal recommendations of certain nutrients to look out for on food labels:

Nutrient (/100g)LOW (Eat often)Moderate (sometimes)High(avoid)
FatLess than 3g3 – 20gMore than 20g
Saturated FatLess than 1.5g1.5 – 5gMore than 5g
SugarLess than 5g5 – 15gMore than 15g
Sodium (salt)Less than 120mg120 – 600mgMore than 600mg

Table of recommended ranges of certain nutrients in foods.  Taken from the Cooking from the Heart Cookbook, published by South African Heart Foundation (2013).