Food labels explained: Are you eating what you think your eating?

Disclaimer: Please note that this article is research based and some of the views and findings do not conform with the CSN Diet.

Do you really know what you are eating every day?

Everything in your meal that is not fresh meat, fruit and vegetables contains added ingredients that you should be aware of. The best way to do this is to get into the habit of reading and understanding the label on the package.

Why should you read the food label?

The food labels inform us exactly what we are consuming and in what quantities. This is important to help us determine the nutritional value of our food, and to choose the healthier option of two different products.

Here are four reasons why it’s worth your time to scrutinise that label: 

  1. If you are trying to lose weight, you can check the calorie content in order to make the best decision.
  1. If you are suffering from a chronic disease, checking the label allows you to stay away from ingredients that can cause further harm.
  1. The label informs you if the product contains ingredients that you might be allergic to.
  1. The label discloses the amount of sugar and unhealthy fats contained in the product.

The label vs the packaging

While the food label shows you the exact ingredients, the descriptions on the package are mostly there for marketing – trying to convince you to buy the product.

The info on the package might technically be correct, but it can be very misleading. In some cases it makes the product appear healthier than it is. Look out for the following

  • The word light. A product can be ‘lighter’ in either calories or fat, but sometimes sugar still gets added or the product is simply watered down.
  • Multigrain has a very healthy ring to it, but it only means that the product contains more than one type of grain. Often this will be refined grains, unless the product is marked as wholegrain.
    Refined grains are not nearly as healthy as wholegrains. They are missing one or more of their three key parts – bran, germ and endosperm.
    Refining a grain removes about a quarter of its protein, and up to two thirds of its nutrients.
  • When a product has been fortified or enriched it means that some nutrients have been added, for example, vitamin D is sometimes added to milk.
    This does not necessarily mean that the product as a whole is healthy.
  • A product being marketed as natural doesn’t mean the product is natural, but only that the manufacturer at some point used a natural resource.
  • Foods that are organic were produced without using synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or other genetically modified components.
    It’s not, however, a guarantee that it is good for you. Sugar, for example, can be organic, but it’s still sugar.
  • No added sugar is not a guarantee that the product is low in sugar, as some products are naturally high in sugar. The product could also contain unhealthy sugar substitutes.
  • Low-calorie products have to have a third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. It is still a good idea to compare the calorie content to that of a different brand.
    One product’s low-calorie version could very well contain the same amount of calories than another brand’s original.
  • Low fat products might contain less fat, but still plenty of sugar. Low-fat yoghurt comes to mind – not the best idea if you are trying to lose weight.
  • Products marked as low-carb can still be highly processed junk foods.
  • Gluten-free also doesn’t mean it’s healthier, it simply means the product doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye or barley. It can still be highly processed and full of unhealthy fats and sugar.
  • Fruit-flavoured implies that the product has been flavoured to taste like fruit, and it’s possible that it doesn’t contain any real fruit.
Calories vs kilojoules In South Africa, the energy content of a product is usually indicated in kilojoules (kJ), and not calories. One calorie is equal to 4.2 kJ. 

Fat: what does the law say?

South African law states that a manufacturer can only claim that their product is low fat if the total fat content of the product is equal to or less than 3g per 100g solid food and 1.5g for liquids.

This becomes tricky when it comes to protein-rich foods like eggs. One large boiled egg contains 5g of fat. 

If you are trying to cut down on your fat intake, the following guidelines can help you to be aware of what you are eating. 

  • High carb foods such as fresh fruit, cereals, breads and grains should contain less than or equal to 3g of fat per 100g.
  • High protein foods such as fresh and processed meats, soft cheese, eggs and tinned fish should contain less than or equal to 10g of fat per 100g.
  • ‘Lean’ or ‘trim’ meat should have a fat content of up to 10g, and ‘extra lean’ only up to 5g.
  • Packaged sauces and gravies should contain less than or equal to 5g of fat per 100g, ‘lite’ salad dressings should contain only up to 15g of fat per 100g and hard cheese up to 13g of fat per 100g.
  • If a product claims to be low in saturated fat, the cutoff point is 1.5g per 100g solids and 0.75g per 100ml liquids.

Deciphering the label

The label on your food product can be a bit confusing, but if you only understand a few basics it already gives you valuable information.

The first important thing to keep in mind is that the ingredients are listed in order of weight. When you look at the list of ingredients, the one that is listed first is what the product contains the most of.

If this ingredient happens to be something that you are trying to cut down on, then it will be a good idea to look for an alternative product.

The nutritional information table then tells you the amount of energy and nutrients a product contains. This info is usually given per 100g or 100ml, or per serving size.

If you want to compare two different products, use the number per 100g or 100ml. Different products have different serving sizes, so you can’t make a good comparison between them.

Here’s what else you can see on the label:

Total sugar

This shows you how much sugar, both natural and added, a product contains. Fruit, for example, contains natural sugars. If sugar has been added, go for a product that contains 10g or less per 100g.

Dietary fibre

For the digestive system to function optimally, adults need at least 25g of fibre per day. Try to choose products that contain at least 6g dietary fibre per 100g.

Salt or sodium

A product labelled ‘low salt’ should contain less than 120mg sodium per 100g or less than 300mg salt per 100g. Limit your sodium intake to no more than 2 000mg per day (5g or one teaspoon of salt).


According to a study only about a third of South Africans read the labels on their food. One of the reasons given for this is that the labels appear complicated.

Don’t be put off by big words and numbers. A little bit of research goes a long way, and even just paying attention to the basics can make a big difference to your health and quality of life.



Hi, my name is Karien Nel and today I’m 37kg lighter than the day I started my weight loss journey with CSN Diet.

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