17 Jan 2019 - 11:30
Consumer looking at product label
Check the nutrient content table of a food product



Many of us are on a health kick after the glut of the festive season, but it isn’t enough to simply turn down the offer of chocolates and cake and run around the block.

A dietician at the General Practitioners 2019 Conference, hosted by the University of Cape Town, urged doctors and their patients  to know exactly what food labels are telling us, and to understand the regulations governing them.

Dietician Marieke Theron told delegates the first step is understanding exactly what each term means.

“Added sugar” is not simply the ubiquitous white granules, it also covers other forms of sugar such as molasses, fruit pulp, honey and high-fructose corn syrup, all of which should be consumed in small amounts.

We might also frown when we see the word “serving” because this in all likelihood differs from person to person. But, “think of a serving as an amount of food that is typically eaten as a single serving by the average consumer”.

These portions called servings arose from “the department of health sending around a document to all the dieticians in the country who could then give input on every single food you could think of”.

The “net contents” refers to the solid mass after all fluid has been removed), while the RDA refers to the recommended dietary allowance. This is the sufficient amount of a certain nutrient to meet 98% of an individual’s needs (by age and gender category) for that nutrient each day.

Theron also alerted consumers to look out for mandatory product identification to make sure every label tells you what it should.

“The name of a food should be on the front panel and should not be misleading,” she said, citing a bacon-flavoured packets of crisps and the duty of the manufacturer not to imply it contains actual bacon.

Other mandatory information includes “the address of the manufacturer, importer or seller”, instructions on how to use a food, special storage conditions, and the net content.

Another vital clue to look out for is the list of ingredients – not only because it tells us what is in the food, but also because it is listed in “descending order of weight”.

That way, said Theron, you can see what a product is mainly made up of and make a judgment on how healthy it will be for you.

Interestingly, it is the unprocessed foods – often the healthiest – that are exempt from labelling but which then cannot be compared by the consumer to processed food.

Exempt products include “eggs, fresh unprocessed fruit and veg, unprocessed fish, foods that are ready to eat but sold on the premises [like a pre-made sandwich], and flour confectionery that is intended to be eaten within 24 hours of preparation”.

Theron also explained that nutrient content claims can only be made if the amount of that nutrient falls within specific parameters. She cautioned that foods can only claim to be a “source” of a vitamin or mineral if a serving contained from 15% to 29% of that vitamin or mineral’s nutrient reference value (NRV) and it can only say “very high in” or “excellent source of” a certain vitamin or mineral if it contains from 30% to 60% of its NRV.

The regulations also stipulated that “no words, statements, marks or logos can create an impression that a food is supported by, endorsed by, or complies with the recommendations of a specific health practitioner”, and also cannot claim that a food is “healthy, wholesome, nutritious or provides complete or balanced nutrition” as no single product can do that.

There also cannot be words like “cure, restore, heal” or words that make claims of slimming or weight-loss like “diet” or “zero”.

The conference runs all week at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa in Newlands, Cape Town.

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