How to read and understand food labels

How to read and understand Food Labels
How to read and understand Food Labels

Food labels are supposed to help you understand what is in packaged foods. To protect the consumer, there are many regulations which relate to the production marketing, and labeling of food. The consumer expects a supply of foodstuffs to comply with the relevant laws relating to their product and trust that the manner in which it is handled, and the information that is presented to the consumer regarding their product is true and not misleading.

Yet often, the way in which they are written are confusing. It is important to learn how to read and understand food labels. Nutritional claims and packaging can often be misleading. The nutritional information is often spread between the front and the back of the item, so one has to be aware to look at both places to get the full information. If there is a nutritional claim that is stated on the label, then the relevant content, like vitamins and minerals must be included. From allergen declarations, to storage instructions of a foodstuff, consumers are fast becoming more conscious of what is in their foodstuffs.

There are many mandatory requirements a supplier must comply with when displaying information on a label. What is worthy for the consumer to note?

Date Marking

This must be indicated on the label and in the following manner; ‘best before’, [BB], and/or ‘sell by’. It is prohibited for any person to alter or remove the date is however, important to note that when the ‘best before’ date has been reached, it does not indicate that the food is unsafe, but instead that it is past its best .’Use by” often applies to refrigerated items where the risk of microbiological spoilage could increase after a given date. ’Sell by’  is a guideline for the store to ensure that goods have a reasonable shelf life after purchase.

Nutritional Information

If there are claims made on a label, such as “Low fat” , it is mandatory to have a nutritional table on the label. The Regulations relating to the Foodstuffs Act R146, describes a specific format in which the nutritional information must be presented.The label must include the energy content in kilo-calories [kcal] and kilo-joules [kj], fats, saturated fats, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt per 100 gram[g] or millilitre[ml]. In 2010, food labeling 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’.


Common allergens must be declared on the label which is regulated by in regulation R146. Common allergens, include the following; eggs, cows milk, gluten and nuts. If you contact a foodstuff manufacturer and ask if a product contains an uncommon allergen, this information must be disclosed to you.


Endorsements are those mysterious logos that you see on your food packaging. Health organisations that are allowed to endorse food are strictly regulated. Only those approved by the Director General of The Department of Health has this capability. For this reason, health practitioner’s are not allowed to endorse food products. Look for logos from the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Diabetes South Africa. These foods have to meet strict criteria to carry the logos.

Labeling information in South Africa is complex and should be looked at as a whole and not in isolation. It is important to learn how to read and understand food labels. In addition to the multitude of legislation’s pertaining to food labeling, there is also no single regulatory authority on labeling of foodstuffs. Although this can all be quite overwhelming, consumers must be aware of their rights and where to go should they have a complaint. With new labeling Regulations in the pipeline gearing to replace R146, understanding the complex nature of our South African labeling legislation has never been more important.

Candice Schmidt
Author: Candice Schmidt