How to Decode a Food Nutrition Label

Words: Jess Spiro

With food labels doing their best to convince you to eat their product and that they’re good for you, it can be a minefield to know exactly what everything means. We break down what a basic food nutrition label means and what you should look out for if you’re trying to eat fairly nutrition label


The ingredients of a food item will always be listed from greatest to smallest by weight. Use this to check the first three ingredients for items high in saturated fat, salt or added sugar. Also, if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, chances are it’s not very good for you.

Average Values

The row at the top of South African food labels will tell you what the serving size of the food item is. If comparing nutrients between two food products use the per 100 g column so you know exactly what you’re dealing with. If calculating how much of a nutrient, or how many kilojoules you will actually eat, use the ‘per serving’ column.


Energy is listed on the panel of a food nutrition label as kilojoules. Fats, protein and carbohydrates all provide the body with the energy or kilojoules needed to function and help you go about your daily activities. Manufacturers are required to list the energy content of the product to help consumers manage their energy intake. Lower energy usually means lower fat or sugar, which means a better or healthier choice for most people. Read more about calorie counting.


As we know, proteins are very important for our bodies to function healthily. Protein builds, maintains, and replaces the tissues in your body. Your muscles, your organs, and your immune system are made up mostly of protein. The number relating to protein on the packaging will tell you how much protein is in the food, which means you can work out how much to eat in relation to your recommended daily intake.


Carbohydrates come in either simple or complex form and offer up an important source of energy for the body. Simple sugars are found in refined sugars, like white sugar, but can also be found in some fruit and milk. When trying to choose the better option off the shelf, something like fruit is better for you than a sweet, because even though there are the simple sugars, there are at least vitamins and fibres in the fruit.

Bread Recipes

Complex carbohydrates refer to things like starches such as bread, pasta and rice. Provided you’re not eating white rice and bread, which have been refined and bleached of all nutrients. Unrefined grains also are rich in fibre, which help your digestive system function properly. Fibre helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat, which explains why a bowl of oats fills you up more efficiently than sweets with the same amount of calories as the oatmeal.

  • Of which total sugar: this tells you just how much sugar there is in the food item. If you’re trying to be careful about your sugar intake, make sure that sugar doesn’t exceed 15 g per 100 g. If it does, it should be included as one of the ingredients, which is a warning sign about how unhealthy the product is.

Total Fat

Your body needs fat to function properly, but too much of the wrong kind can obviously be very unhealthy. The different kinds of fat, such as saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat, will be listed separately on the label.

  • Of which saturated fat: this is the bad kind of fat, so try and avoid foods that contain over 3 g of saturated fat per 100 g.

Dietary Fibre

Fibre is the part of food that your body doesn’t break down and absorb. Instead, it passes mostly intact through your stomach, small intestine and colon and out of your body. Fibre is commonly classified as soluble, which dissolves in water, or insoluble, which doesn’t dissolve.

Soluble fibre helps lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels and is found in oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley and psyllium.

food nutrition label

Insoluble fibre, simply put, aids in keeping you regular. It is found in whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, beans and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans and potatoes. To try and make better health decisions, choose bread and cereals with 3 g or more per serving.

Total Sodium

There are at least 15 other names for sodium, or salt, including MSG, yeast extract, baking powder and sodium nitrate. If you eat too much salt, the extra water stored in your body raises your blood pressure.

The higher your blood pressure, the greater the strain on your heart, arteries, kidneys and brain. This can lead to heart attacks, strokes, dementia and kidney disease. When reading food labels, choose food with less than 400 mg of salt per 100 g. Less than 120 mg salt per 100 g is best.

With any food choice, a really great guideline can be to choose whole, unprocessed foods – in easy terms think of the ingredient and whether you can pick it or hunt it.

If it comes in a box, tin or packet, it has most likely been through several factory processes to get to you. Be clued up and get into the habit of reading the labels of what you are consuming and make better choices – knowledge is power.

Now that you’re more clued up about deciphering food nutrition labels you can make better, healthier choices. Check out these healthy foods that help fuel a strong body and mind.

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