Understanding food labels

Part of making good choices, is knowing what is in different food products. The habit of always reading food labels will benefit the whole family and is an important part of following a healthy lifestyle. Knowing what to look out for, is a good start.

Every food label looks a little different but should contain certain important information to help you decide whether or not it is a healthy option. Understanding what this information means, will make reading labels so much easier. There are two important aspects to understanding food labels: first the nutrition information panel, followed by the list of ingredients in the product.

Use this 2-step guide

Read the panel

The Nutrition Information Panel on a label is often divided into columns. One column shows the nutritional value per 100 g of food and the other column, the values per suggested serving size, indicated for that specific product. In an additional column, the nutritional elements are listed and should indicate the energy, protein, fat, carbohydrates, sugar and sodium (salt) in food. General guidelines for the ideal amount of each nutrient have been suggested below.

The serving sizes differ between products, so the best way to compare foods is to look at the ‘per 100 g’ column.

Remember that sugar, fat and salt can be listed under different names on a label:


concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, honey, lactose, malt, malt extract, maltose, isomaltose, maltodextrin, molasses, sucrose, raw sugar, cane sugar, invert sugar, treacle


animal fat, beef fat, butter, chocolate, carob, coconut oil, cream, dripping, ghee, hydrogenated oils, lard, margarine, milk solids, monoglycerides, palm oil, seeds, nuts, coconut, shortening, tallow, trans fats, vegetable fat


baking soda, salt, MSG (monosodium glutamate), any word containing the term sodium, nitrates, nitrites

Read the list of ingredients

The list of ingredients should be indicated in order of highest to lowest quantity in the specific food (see the examples below). The first three ingredients on the label make up the largest portion of the product. Be aware of either sugar, salt or fat as one of these first ingredients, as this may indicate that it’s not such a healthy choice. Also take note that these ingredients are sometimes ‘hidden’ in products and listed under different names, which could be confusing.

Example 1: Brown onion soup powder

Example 2: Tin chopped tomatoes

Heart Mark programme

The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa implemented a healthy foods endorsement programme called the Heart Mark programme, about 25 years ago. The Heart Mark logo makes choosing healthier food products easier when shopping. The logo on the food labels indicates that it is a product low in salt, saturated fat, trans fat and sugar and high in fibre. Heart Mark products can contribute to reducing and controlling lifestyle diseases, like high blood pressure, bad cholesterol, heart diseases and strokes.

Keep in mind that no product should be eaten in excessive portions or too frequently, even if it carries the Heart Mark.

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