How to Decode a Food Nutrition Label

Words: Jess Spiro

With brands doing their best to convince you to eat their product and that they’re good for you, it can be a minefield figuring out what everything means. We decipher 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 in descending values (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 nutrition 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 (values could differ) so you know exactly what you’re dealing with. If calculating how much of a nutrient or how many kilojoules/calories you will actually eat, use the ‘per serving’ column.

Serving Size

Serving sizes vary from product to product and are measured differently, depending on the product. Its value could be listed as common household items e.g. cups/piece/slice/teaspoon/cups. Serving sizes are also weighted in metric measures, usually grams. It’s normally clearly listed (single serving) at the back of the product or under the tabulated food nutrition label (per *amount* grams).

When determining serving sizes, note that it is the standardised quantity most people would typically eat and differs from portion size. Portion size is the amount of food consumed that is individually unique, according to personalised dietary needs/habits. Depending on your portion size, you may need to half or double the serving size.


Energy is listed on food nutrition labels 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. Energy is also measured in calories/kilocalories.  This is usually the part of food labels most health-conscious people pay attention to when factoring in their daily caloric intake.

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 tissue in your body. Your muscles, organs, and immune system are mostly made up of protein. The protein value on the packaging will tell you how much protein is in the food. You can work out how much protein to consume, in relation to your recommended daily intake.


Carbohydrates either exist in simple or complex form and are a source of energy for the body. Simple sugars are found in refined sugars, like white sugar but can also be found in certain fruits and milk. When trying to choose the better option on the shelf, something like fruit is healthier for you versus candy  — even though it contains simple sugars, there are at least vitamins and fibres in most fruits.

If you are counting carbohydrates (on a carb-restricted diet, for example) you would want to calculate your net carb intake. To do this, deduct the fibre from the carbohydrate amount to give you a net carb reading. These are the carbohydrates that you consume, digest and use for energy.

Bread Recipes

Complex carbohydrates usually refers to starches, such as bread, pasta and rice. Note that white rice and bread are refined, bleached and stripped of all nutrients. Unrefined grains are rich in fibre and help your digestive system function better (depending on your body).

Fibre helps you keep full, so you are less likely to overeat. This explains why a bowl of oats is more likely to sustain you, compared to sweets which have 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 the sugar amount doesn’t exceed 15 g per 100 g.

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 should be listed separately on the label. The total fat reading on the food nutrition label is especially important information if you need to be mindful of your cholesterol levels.

  • 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.
  • Of which unsaturated fats: are usually the ‘good’ type of cholesterol and are sourced from plants (vegetable oil), seeds and nuts. Unsaturated fats can be broken down into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. This information isn’t always listed on products, unless it’s an oil-based product.
  • Of which transfats: transfats/trans-fatty acids usually fall under unsaturated fats. Most transfats are found in processed foods and foods that have undergone hydrogenation — the process of transforming liquid oils into solid oils. You can check the list of ingredients to determine if the product has been hydrogenised.


Not all products contain cholesterol values under the food nutrition label. Oil products (canola oil, sunflower oil), meat, poultry and eggs usually list cholesterol values in milligrams (mg) per serving. Although cholesterol product values may seem low, it’s important to consider the serving size and the portion size consumed.

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 well, you know the rest…

Fibre is commonly classified as soluble (dissolves in water) or insoluble (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

Simply put, insoluble fibre aids in ‘keeping you regular’. It is found in whole-wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts, greens, beans and even 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/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 nutrition labels, choose food with less than 400 mg of salt per 100 g. Ideally, 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 on a farm or hunt it.

If it comes in a box, tin or packet, it has most likely been through several factory processes before being stored on shelves. 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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