Food labels are the key to knowing what you will be eating. Yet have you ever found yourself staring at a supermarket shelf cram packed with breakfast cereal? Each carton has any array of promises to grab your attention. “High protein”, “low fat”, “free from GMO’s”, “only contains natural colourants”, “no added sugar” or “high in fibre”…Sound familiar? 

Although it might seem daunting to differentiate facts from falsehoods when it comes to labels and sensationalist product claims, in South Africa what is and is not allowed is tightly regulated. The laws and provisions that govern food labels and claims are designed to protect consumers from being misled with false claims. They level the playing field so that it is easy to compare seemingly similar products.

Nonetheless, you may still find the claims and terms used on the packaging baffling.  It’s useful to know what to look out for and how to interpret claims and make the most informed product choice.

The first thing you are likely to see are claims – “high in protein” or “a source of vitamins”, but can this be substantiated and what does it mean for consumers?

The good news is that our regulators tightly control the specific definitions of these statements based on the product’s proven nutritional content. To make a “high in protein” claim, a product would need to contain at least 10 grams of protein per 100 grams of product. Similarly, a product will need to contain less than 0,5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of product to make a “sugar free” claim.

The general regulations for food labelling also contain detailed provisions for negative claims, prohibited claims and comparative claims with strict specifications on how these claims can and can’t be stated.  

In addition, there are several regulations under the Agricultural Product Standards Act. These cover classification and labelling standards of a broad range of products and govern strict criteria for example, when a yoghurt can be considered “high fat” or “low fat”.  Even if the specific claim isn’t covered in these regulations, consumers are still covered by the Consumer Protection Act, which ensures harsh penalties for false or misleading advertising.  

But claims aren’t everything. A product that is ‘’low in fat’’, may not necessarily be low in sugar and this is where the typical Nutritional Information table (known simply as nutri table) comes in.  

Nutritional information
A nutri table is a basic table that lists the macro- and micronutrients and their relative values per 100 grams and per serving of the product. By law, these tables are highly standardised which significantly helps to easily compare differences across two seemingly identical products. Although some imported products might have slightly differently structured nutri tables, they will often still include a sticker with the nutritional information presented in the prescribed South African format. Some differences include:

Calories vs KJ – calories are more commonly used in America and Europe. In South Africa we use kilojoules and 1 Kcal = 4,2 kJ

100 g vs per serving – in South Africa it is required to give a 100 g value of each nutrient as well as a per serving breakdown where relevant. The 100 g values help to easily compare two products on a like-for-like basis.

NRV’s – an acronym for Nutrient Reference Values. This is a particularly useful guide of scientifically proven recommended nutritional intake. They state the intake level of key vitamins and minerals considered appropriate for preventing deficiencies and illnesses in healthy individuals. In other words, if a serving of a product states that it contains a 25% NRV of vitamin C, that means that a single serving of that food will provide a quarter of the general daily requirements of vitamin C intake for a healthy person.

Format – you will also notice that the typical nutritional information tables in South Africa follow a similar format. Specifically, this refers to the nutrients mentioned (i.e. Energy, Protein, Carbohydrates, Total Fat, etc.), as well as the order in which they appear. This again helps you to easily compare two products, knowing that you are comparing them like-for-like.

Now you’ve seen the claims, you’ve verified their values through the nutri tables, but you still want to gain a better understanding of what you’ll be consuming. Your final stop in understanding the product content is the ingredients list.

Ingredients list
If you are unsure about what you are buying, it is also always worth checking the actual ingredients used in the product. The format and structure of ingredients list are also tightly regulated. By law, ingredients are always listed in the descending order of highest content. If you see sugar as the first ingredient on the list, the product is likely to be high in sugar.

Also useful is that information provides the ingoing percentage of a particular ingredient that might be highlighted on the label. 

Finally, the ingredients lists will also highlight which allergens may be contained in a product. Regulations require allergens to be either highlighted within the ingredients list or to be clearly stated in a nearby area. However, this is only required for the most common allergens, namely egg, cow’s and goat’s milk, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts and any significant cereal known to contain gluten (wheat, rye, barley and oats). If you have a less common allergy, it is advised that you carefully read the ingredients list and if you are still not sure contact the importer or manufacturer.

Responsible retailers will scrutinise all new food listings for compliance. Where we detect any non-compliance, we work closely with vendors to resolve this.  Imported products are usually the biggest challenge as they are done in a foreign format such as the EU format. As South Africa is small market for global brands, the brand owners are not always prepared to change their packaging which is why you may see stickers where adhere to local requirements. This way the consumer can still equitably compare products.

Dis-Chem has come a long way in this regard as have other large retailers. Watch out for smaller health shops which blatantly disregard these laws. Two products might be identical in nutritional value, but the compliant one would not make claims beyond those that are permitted, making the non-compliant appear more appealing.

Luckily, South African consumers are well-protected by strict legislation that minimises the food manufacturers’ chances of misleading you. So next time you stand in the shopping aisle trying to figure out your low-fats from your sugar-frees, rest assured that a simple label comparison can give you the insight to accurately compare.  

Whether you are trying to make healthier choices, avoid certain foods or increase your intake of certain nutrients, deciphering food labels is key to empowering your consumer choices.