If reading labels and ingredient lists seem confusing, this guide will help decode things like serving sizes, NRV's, nutrition claims and truths about fat and sugar content.
Food labels are supposed to help you understand what's in packaged foods. By law, the label must include the energy content in kilocalories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ), fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt per 100 gram (g) or millilitre (ml).
Yet often the way they're written is confusing. Nutritional claims and packaging can also be misleading. When you're rushing through your grocery shop, and you're looking for low sodium, do you bother to look if low sodium also means higher sugar? Nutritional information is sometimes spread between the back and front of the item, so be sure to look in both places to get the full picture. If there is a nutritional claim stated on the label, then the relevant content, like vitamins and minerals, must also be included. Be very aware of the packaging, it may have all the design elements of a totally natural, wholesome product until you read the actual ingredients.
In 2010, food labelling in South Africa changed somewhat. Certain words were banned, such as 'rich in', 'excellent source of', 'enriched with X', 'added Y' and 'contains Z'. Now, percentages must be added to the label, for example, 'contains X% fat'.
Here's a list of what must be outlined on every food or beverage label:
Name, trade name or description;
Name and complete address of manufacturer/packer, importer, country of origin of the imported food;
Net weight, number or volume of contents in metric units;
Distinctive batch, lot or code number;
Month and year of manufacture and packaging;
Month and year by which the product is best consumed;
Information about pharmaceutical and industrial products must be in English;
If food products have been genetically modified (GM) this must be indicated in the label.
THE REAL MEANING
First, we look at some of the claims that are made on your food label and understand what's truly behind those claims:
Low Fat - Foods can only be labelled as 'Low fat' if they contain no more than 3 g of total fat per 100g (solids) or 1.5g of total fat per 100 ml (liquids)
Low in Saturated Fat - This means 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.
Fat Free - to be true, the product needs to contain less than 0.5gm of fat per serving. So, if you're on a low-fat diet, this might seem like a good choice. But, note that there is often extra sugar or starch added to make the product tasty.
Fat free products also aren't as nutritionally satisfying, so you may tend to overeat. Remember that 'reduced fat' doesn't mean fat free ' it generally relates to around a 25% reduction in fat of the original product.
0 Grams Trans Fat - this contains less than 0.5gm of trans fat. This is good because trans fats are known to assist in raising bad LDL cholesterol and lowering good HDL cholesterol. But, trans fats are sometimes replaced with unhealthy saturated fats, like palm oil. So, if your label says it's low in trans fats, keep reading to see if other nasties are included. Definitely avoid any product with the words hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated.
Light - this could refer to lower sodium or fat levels. Keep in mind, though, that sugar is often higher in these products.
Low-Sodium: this should contain 140mg or less per serving. Choose food with less sodium than calories.
No Antibiotics - This is specifically for meat and poultry. If it's labeled * organic, then that will also mean there are no antibiotics in the food.
No Hormones - You'll typically find this on beef and dairy products. Hormones are often used to make animals gain weight faster or increase milk production. Once again, organic products are also hormone free.
Gluten-Free - You'll certainly want to look out for this if you are gluten intolerant. Do be aware also that 'wheat-free' doesn't mean gluten free. Barley, malt, malt syrup, rye, malt extract or malt vinegar all contain gluten.
Sugar-Free - This means the product contains less than 0.5gm of sugar per serving. But, sugar free doesn't always mean low calorie because added starch can increase the calorie count. Additionally, artificial sweeteners could be used to replace the sugar.
Here's what to look out for on a typical food label:
This means the amount of food for which the nutritional information is shown. This doesn't always correlate with the total amount of food in a package. This example shows a serving size of 113g, but four servings. That means the total amount of product in the package is 452g.
%NRV (Nutrient Reference Values)
If it's less than 5% it's low in that nutrient, if 20% and more, then it's high in that nutrient.
Most animal fats are saturated. The fats of plants and fish are generally unsaturated. Its best to avoid saturated fat.
Avoid this as far as possible, it's unhealthy and created through the chemical process of hydrogenation of oils.
While your body produces cholesterol for the production of bile and is used to make Vitamin D and certain hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, it's not necessary to get more from your food. If you do, try for less than 300mg per day.
This is best avoided ' high sodium is associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. The recommended amount of sodium per day for an adult is a mere 0.9-2.3grams (900 ' 2300mg).
The two main forms of carbohydrates are sugars and starches. Your body breaks carbohydrates down into sugar glucose; as your levels of glucose rise, your body begins to produce insulin, which moves sugar from your blood to your cells to be used as an energy source.
This is an essential part of your diet and can be either insoluble or soluble. If a product you're buying has a health claim regarding fibre, then the type of dietary fibre should also be listed.
Each gram of sugar provides 4 calories. Although sugars occur naturally in a lot of food, try to avoid high amounts of sugar and definitely avoid food that contains 'added sugar'.
Amount per serving
Note that this is only for each serving of 113g. If you eat the entire package of product, you'll need to times the amounts by 4 (calories then would be 1,120).
Defined as a unit of energy, calories are also referred to as kilojoules. Both a kilocalorie and a kilojoule are a measure or unit of energy. If you say that a food contains 100 kcal or 420 kilojoules, it refers to when the food is completely metabolised, 100 non-metric units or 420 metric units of energy will be released for use by the body.
Calories from fat
This is a tricky conversion, but an important one. To get the percentage of calories from fat, divide the 'calories from fat' by the 'total calories' and times by 100. In this instance, the percentage of calories from fat is 46.4%.
There are 20 different amino acids that can be combined to make every type of protein in the body. These amino acids are in two categories ' essential and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids can be made by the body from essential amino acids consumed through food. Protein is important for growth and development, and is also one of three macronutrients in food that provide calories, or 'energy' for the body. Each gram of protein provides 4 calories.
Not all vitamins contained in a product need to be listed. However, if vitamins are added, they must be included on the nutrient list. The reason vitamins are added is often because the processing of the ingredient (such as cereals) reduces the vitamin content, so manufacturers add it back after processing.
Navigating the grocery aisle and keeping your choices healthy seems to come down to your ability to do maths. While teachers may applaud this because they'll finally have proof that students will need their lessons in daily life, it can slow down your shopping trip. Simply be aware of the nutrients you need and what they mean, as well as how percentages affect your overall lifestyle. Mindfulness and practise will help you make the right choices without the need for a calculator and memorised equations.
“Wellness Warehouse strives to help you live life well but because we are retailers and not medical practitioners we cannot offer medical advice. Please always consult your medical practitioner before taking any supplements, complementary medicines or have any health concerns and ensure that you always read labels, warnings and directions carefully, prior to consumption.”