How to read food labels

Taking a closer look at food labels can help you identify certain ingredient that could be hindering your health. This guide will help you make better and informed decisions when you're shopping for healthy foods online.


ON THE LABEL: The kilojoule count

In South Africa, the total energy of a product is indicated in kilojoules (kJ). If your product indicates ‘calories,’ one calorie is equal to 4.2 kJ. To maintain a healthy weight, the energy from your food and beverages must balance with your total energy expenditure. If you take in more kJ per day than your body needs, you will likely gain weight. 

Your individual energy needs are largely based on your age, activity levels and gender. A registered dietitian will be able to assist you in tailoring your diet to suit your needs.

ON THE LABEL: Carbohydrate

1. ‘Glycaemic Carbohydrate’ or ‘Carbohydrate’ reflects the total carbohydrate count and does NOT indicate the Glycaemic Index of the product. This is rather the sum of carbohydrates is derived from ‘sugars’ (both added and naturally occurring) and from complex (starchy) carbohydrates. 

2. ‘Carbohydrate Of which sugars’ tells you how much sugar the food or drink contains and includes both added sugar and naturally occurring sugar from fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). Added sugars include sugars such as sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, invert syrup, maltose and honey.

When looking at product labels, note that the ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. Therefore a product that contains large amounts of added sugar will list sugar (sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, maltose, galactose) higher up in the ingredient list.

Remember: All carbohydrate, regardless of the source, will increase your blood glucose levels.


Protein is needed by our bodies for growth and repair (so you want some of this!). Good sources of protein are lean meat, fish (preferably oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon, sardines), lean poultry, eggs, soya, beans, pulses and lentils. By choosing lean cuts of meat and opting for more plant proteins, you can favourably reduce the amount of saturated fat and kilojoules in your diet.

Keep in mind that plant-based protein sources, such as beans and soya, also contain carbohydrates, for example, a cup of beans will contain about 15 g of carbohydrate.


Eating less fat (particularly saturated fat) may help you maintain a healthy weight, improve general health and assist with blood sugar control.

There are two main types of fat: saturated and unsaturated (polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans) fats. The bulk of our daily dietary fat intake should come from unsaturated fats (mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids). When reading a product label, identify these from the ingredient list. This can assist you in making an appropriate choice.

Product labels will indicate the ‘total fat’ content, and also a breakdown of the types of fats (‘of which saturated fatty acids’; ‘of which mono-unsaturated fatty acids’; ‘of which trans fatty acids’; ‘of which poly-unsaturated fatty acids’.


Fibre is also known as ‘roughage’ and is plant matter that your body can’t digest. There are two types of fibre, soluble and insoluble and both are beneficial to your health.

Soluble fibre, found in beans, pulses, oats, fruit and vegetables, assists in softer stool formation and regulation of blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
Insoluble fibre, found in wholegrain cereals and breads, beans, fruit and vegetables helps to keep your digestive system healthy and improve satiety.

The recommended fibre requirement for adults is 25 - 30 g of fibre per day. A product that is a high source of fibre will have at least 4.8 - 6 g fibre per 100 g, (depending on the type of laboratory analysis used).


The South African food based dietary guidelines state that you should limit salt (sodium) intake as a high intake has been linked with various disease conditions.

When shopping, take time to compare the sodium content per serving of similar products in order to choose the best option. The new sodium guidelines recommends limiting salt intake to 5 g (1 tsp) or 2 000 mg of sodium per day.