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Your 6-step guide to reading food labels

Checking the labels on food packaging is the only way to really know how much salt, sugar or fat a food contains. Here's how to decode those often-confusing tables and lists of ingredients.

One small thing: Familiarise yourself with food labels on products before you put them in your trolley.

The best way to keep track of how much salt, sugar or fat is in your diet is by reading the nutrition labels on the packaging of the food you buy. But those labels can be confusing if you don't know what the words and numbers mean. Here's how to decipher them in six easy steps.

Step one: Check the serving size

When it comes to serving size, there are two things you need to look for: the serving size (that's the amount people usually eat at a time) and the number of servings in the package. Next, you need to compare your serving size (that's how much you'd actually eat) to the serving size that is recommended. If the serving size is one cup but you eat two, you're actually getting twice the energy, fat, sugar, salt and other nutrients listed on the label.

Step two: Understand the GDAs (guideline daily allowances)

Use the percentage GDAs on the front of our PnP product packaging to help evaluate how the food should fit into your daily meal plan. GDAs provide helpful details about the amount of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and sodium that a serving of the food provides as a percentage of your daily requirements. For example, a food with a 5% GDA for fat provides 5% of the total fat you should have in a day.

Step three: Identify the total energy count

Now you need to take note of how many kilojoules are contained in a single serving. If you're trying to lose weight, it's a good idea to cut back on energy-dense foods. Remember, in South Africa we measure food energy in kilojoules (kJ), not calories. The conversion is about 1 calorie to 4.2 kilojoules.

Step four: Understand the health claims

This is where it can get tricky, but it needn't be if understand what the health claims really mean:

  • Reduced sugar = at least 25% less sugar than the usual product (for example, a "lite" or "diet" fizzy drink vs a regular fizzy drink)
  • Low fat = less than 3g of fat per 100g of the product
  • Fat free/sugar free = less than 0.5g of fat or sugar per serving
  • Low sodium = 140mg or less of sodium per serving
  • Source of monosaturated fat = a significant proportion of the fat is a healthy fat
  • High in fibre = more than 6g of fibre per 100g of the product
  • High in vitamins = provides at least 30% of your RDA (or recommended daily allowance) of a vitamin or nutrient per serving
Step five: Choose foods that are low in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium

You can help reduce your risk for chronic disease by eating less saturated fat, added sugars and sodium:

  • Saturated fats and trans fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  • High levels of sodium can cause high blood pressure.
  • If you eat too much added sugar, it can lead to an excessive intake of energy which can lead to weight gain

So make the smart choice when buying food.

Step six: Get enough vitamins, minerals and fibre

It's important to eat more fibre, vitamin D and calcium to maintain good health, plus it can help reduce your risk of certain health problems, such as heart disease and osteoporosis. Try to eat more fruit and veggies as these are nutrient dense.

Important to know

Foods with more than one ingredient must have an ingredient list on the label. The ingredients on a food label are listed in order of descending weight. That means if sugar is at the top of the list, there's more sugar than any other single ingredient in the product.

In addition, by law food labels have to list common allergens (food-allergy triggers), like gluten, peanuts, cow's milk, and so on.

Sugar and salt by any other name

Often sugars and salts (and bad fats, too) will be listed under different names.

Sugar is sometimes present as dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose, concentrated fruit juice, corn syrup, malt or cane sugar, among others.

Salt, meanwhile, sometimes goes by aliases like baking soda, monosodium glutamate (MSG), or variations of sodium (i.e. sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite).

Fats, meanwhile, often go by names like vegetable fat, hydrogenated fat, monoglycerides, palm oil or lard.

If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit To get in touch with us, email