The mystery of food labels – Does the label on the food product match the contents?

Hendri and Ronin captured in this photo by Denese Lups

South Africa has legislative framework that dictates that the label on a product matches its contents. While this is all fine and well, says Amanda Rogaly – MD and founder of FoodSure – most South Africans wouldn’t be able to tell what they should be looking out for, never mind make sure the contents are accurate.

While it may seem obvious, the first rule all companies have to follow is to ensure the product name is descriptive and not misleading. As a perfect example, Norah-Ann Hayes, one of FoodSure’s Food Labelling Consultants, explains that a cake cannot be described as strawberry cake if it contains flavouring but not actual strawberries. It would need to be labelled as strawberry-flavoured cake instead.

Similarly, only authorised nutrient content claims may be made e.g. low fat or high in protein. “No claims are allowed to be made around antioxidants or for instance that a food assists in reduction of disease risk,” says Hayes.

Rogaly adds that there are other health considerations when reading food labels. While the fat and calorie content is important, other ingredients, like sodium, can affect how healthy a product is, or isn’t. “Food labels can sometimes be confusing, especially if the front of the product proclaims that it’s low in sodium but the information on the label lists sodium in the top few rows of the nutritional value information. This means that sodium is one of the primary ingredients in the product, since the label has to reflect the weights of ingredients from the highest to the lowest, in order.”

In addition, Hayes explains, if an ingredient is highlighted either through the product name or through pictures, the percentage contained in the product must be declared in the ingredients list.

“Information on the major eight allergens must either be declared in the ingredients list or stated as ‘contains’ at the end of the ingredients list.”

Another vital detail on labels is the sell-by or use-by date, known as the durability date. Durability dates are the dates that detail where the product is no longer of a desired quality and/or safety. “There has been much discussion on this of late, as durability dates are pushing up food wastage of perfectly edible food, as the product may still be safe for consumption, but just lost some crunch or flavour. But products that can microbially become unsafe require a use-by date and not a best-before date, because a best-before date refers only to the shelf life of an unopened product. This is obviously to protect the consumer,” says Hayes.

Rogaly says that these pointers are just a few of the things consumers can look out for, and that the South African labelling laws are extremely comprehensive. For example, the legislation stipulates that the name and address of the manufacturer should be clearly visible, and that the storage instructions must be for both before opening and after opening the product. They must be such not only that the product is safe for consumption at the end of shelf life, but also of the expected quality.

“It’s a demanding process to comply with these regulations, and we applaud the local food producers that fulfil all the labelling requirements. We are here to acknowledge them, and we are here to help demystify often confusing labels for consumers.”

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