Understanding nutritional labels


#Fact – Healthy eating starts with knowing exactly what you are

putting in your mouth.


In order to do so you first need to understand nutritional labels

Although food manufactures are required by law to include nutrition information on their products, the information still seems to be intimidating and sometimes misleading to the average consumer.

So here is what you need to know.

South Africa is a metric country, the energy value of foods must be expressed in kilojoules (kJ).

So, if a food’s energy value is listed as 700 kJ per portion, then this is how much energy you will ingest when you eat a portion of this food.

However, many manufacturers still list the energy content of foods in calories (kcal) or use both kJ and calories.

1 kcal = 4.187 kJ

Energy in food is always expressed in kcal, but most manufacturers forget to use the ‘k’ in front of the ‘cal’ in the abbreviation. Even though the abbreviations ‘cal’ and ‘kcal’ actually have different scientific meanings, manufacturers use them interchangeably.

So when a food label states that the product contains 50 cal and another product contains 50 kcal, it actually might mean the same thing.


Ingredients are listed from the largest amount to the least on the food label.

Think twice when purchasing a product if one of the top three ingredients is either fat, sugar or salt .

Check the serving sizes

Ensure that you look at the correct column in the Table indicating the portion size of the product.

Nutritive value of the food will be listed  as  per 100 g or per 100 ml (liquids), or both per portion and per 100g (100ml).  This is the standard and will make it easier for the consumer to compare two of the same kind of products with each other.

However the serving size will also be noted in the second column.  That will be where the portion size “suggested”.

But! Keep in mind that you might not eat the same serving size in reality.

Cereal for instances:  they might suggest  40 gram but you might actually be eating 60 gram in reality.


So I’m on a diet, but  how would I know if it’s low in kilojoules ?

Food that contains less than 170 kJ per 100 g (40.6 kcal per 100 g)  or less than 80 kJ per 100 ml (19.11 Kcal) in the case of liquids can be regarded as ‘low in energy’.

This is a very small amount of energy and  you will probably notice  that most processed foods will not meet this requirement.

 This is why most weight loss diets recommend a higher intake of fruit and vegetables as they contain much less kilojoules compared to commercially pre-packed foods. 

What about low-fat?

“Low Fat” foods should not contain more than 3 g fat per 100 g  and beverages no more than 1,5 g per 100 ml.

There are four different types of fats that make up Total Fat: Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated, Saturated and Trans fats. The Trans fats and Saturated fats are the baddies.

 If you are at risk of heart disease you should always look at the Saturated fat. Foods with a low saturated fat value that contains less than 1 g saturated fat per 100 g or less than 0,75 g per 100 ml.

Trans fats  are linked to heart disease and cancer. Opt for products that have less then 0,1 g trans fatty acids per 100 g or 100 ml. Pies, chips and cookies are the biggest culprit foods when it comes to trans fatty acids.

Remember 5 g of fat is 1 teaspoon of fat. If there is 30 g of fat per serving you will be eating 6 teaspoons of fat!

Look out for the  South African Heart and stroke Foundations logo on products.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSF) plays a leading

role in the fight against preventable heart disease and stroke.


What about protein?

Keep in mind that animal products (meat, cheese and milk) will be a better quality of protein than plant-based proteins.

If a product claims to be “High protein” foods it should have  10g of Protein per 100g


What about Carbohydrates?

If you are a diabetic , an athlete  or simply trying to limit your carb intake you will be interested in this value.

Carbs are our main source of energy, when you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into individual sugar molecules and converts them into glucose, which your cells use for energy.

Nutrition labels will reveal the amount of total carbohydrate, fibre  and sugar in a serving of food,


Total Carbohydrates

The total carbohydrate value refers to all the sugars and starches found in all fresh fruit, vegetables, all grains , milk and milk products. Total carbohydrates of a product is of little value unless you are following a weight reducing diet and know how much carbohydrates you should consume per day.

If you carbohydrate count, you should look at total carbohydrate, not sugar, to determine the amount of carbohydrate in each serving. If you’re counting carbs in your diet, be aware that 15 grams of carbohydrates count as one serving.

Take special note that the Total carbohydrate value is NOT the GI value of the product.

Research have found that not all carbohydrates are digested and absorbed at the same rate. This means that different carbohydrates can have different effects on the glucose and blood insulin levels.

Look out for the GIFSA  symbol (Glycemic Index Foundation of South Africa).

The GI index or list will indicate which foods are low GI, Intermediate GI and High GI.

Based on the Glycemic index of each carbohydrate food they are divided in three categories.

  • Slow release carbs with a GI value of 55 and below is regarded as LOW GI FOODS (Listed in green )

             Often foods, ideal before exercise or when inactive, most of the time.

  • Carbs with a GI value of 56 to 69 is regarded as INTERMEDIATE GI FOODS (Listed in orange)

             Ideal during and after exercise lasting longer than one hour

  • Fast release carbs with a GI value of 70 and above is regarded as HI GI FOODS (Listed in Red )

              Ideal after exercise lasting one hour (healthy sportsmen and woman)

Carbohydrate (of which sugars) tells you how much sugar the food or drink contains and includes both added sugar and naturally occurring sugar from fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Added sugars include sugars such as sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, invert syrup, maltose and honey.

Look out for the GIFSA logos on products.

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Carbohydrates of which sugars

Keep in mind that 5 g sugar is equal to one teaspoon of sugar.  Most processed foods contain hidden sugars, see the list of 56 names of sugar.


Sugar-free products should have less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving.

Sugar free products often contain sugar alcohols which are lower in calories. Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, Xylitol or Sorbitol, which could cause diarrhoea, so don’t consume a lot in one sitting.

What about Fibre?

Fibre is good for you and we often eat too little of it. Fibre helps prevent bowel problems and keeps you fuller for longer when trying to lose weight.

Fibre is one type of carbohydrate that does not raise blood glucose, in fact  the presence of fibre can slow down the impact of the other carbohydrates in a meal.

When counting carbs we subtract the grams of the fibre from the total carbohydrates. This gives us a value also known as Net carbs, usable carbs or impact carbs.

Food that claims to be “High fibre” should contain 6 g fibre per 100 g or 3 g per 100 ml.

What about Sodium?

Sodium can raise your blood pressure and it’s advisable to limit your sodium intake. We should aim for less than 1500 mg (3.75 gram or 3/4 teaspoon)   – 2300 mg (6 gram or 1 teaspoon) of sodium per day.

A product is “Sodium free” if it contains less than 5 mg of sodium per serving.

Remember food labels are there for you the consumer to make informed decisions and better food choices.

Your Health matters!


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