Food labels: How to spot the bull they sell you

Navigating the cluttered content of food labels and stickers is often confusing, and some of the claims made can be misleading. Here are some tips to making sure you know exactly what product you are buying

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Here’s a scenario: 

It’s a Saturday morning and you are in the supermarket doing your weekly grocery shopping. You’ve recently tried to shop more sustainably and you’re trying to be a more ethical shopper. Your trolley is empty as you search among the different products.  

You read the cluster of food labels and stickers on the packaging, trying to find out if your food is organic, free-range, eco-friendly, GMO-free, sustainably sourced – all the things you know are better for your health and for the environment. 

food labels
There are so many claims made on food labels, how do you know which ones you can trust? Photo: Supplied

From allergen declarations and the amount of sugar present in a product right down to the storage instructions, awareness of exactly what is in the foods we eat and where they come from is spreading fast among consumers like you and I. 

But what do you know about these food labels and stickers? What do they actually mean? Who authorises them, and what is the process?  

Gary Jackson from Jackson’s Food Market and Eatery recognises that food labels are a “total minefield” for consumers to navigate.  

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Jackson is the founder of the small, family-run supermarket that showcases local farmers and producers. With 25 years of experience under his belt, he is no stranger when it comes to navigating the food retail realm.  

He says that while there may be numerous policies and regulations for these product labels and stickers, there is little enforcement and policing, leaving the industry wide open for exploitation. 

ALSO READ: 10 farms certified by new ethical food label

According to Food Facts, there are many regulations in South Africa which relate to the production, marketing and labelling of food to protect the consumer. Labelling legislation in South Africa is complex, and in addition to the multitude of laws and regulations pertaining to food labelling, there is also no single regulatory authority for the labelling of foodstuffs. 

The most relevant laws for foods and their labelling falls under the Consumer Protection Act, The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, the Agricultural Products Standards Act, and the National Health Act as well as the regulations that fall under each Act. 

Don’t be fooled by… 

It is easy for food manufacturers to use marketing strategies that mislead the consumer, not only directly with blatant untruths printed on labels and packaging, but also by misleading the consumer with half-truths or by implications on labels and marketing information. 

For Jackson this is most prominent when it comes to the eggs that we buy. 

“There is no definitive protocol for what constitutes free-range for chickens in South Africa,” he says. “Some people see access to sunlight and air as free-range; some define it by the diet that the animals are fed.” 

There is such a broad spectrum out there for people to use the term ‘free-range’ that might not overlap with what the consumer expects it to mean.

When I hear the term “free-range” I assume the chicken has literal free range and freedom on a pasture, not just access to sunlight or a particular diet. 

food labels
Don’t be misled by the claims on labels (or lack thereof). Photo: Supplied

Another example of this is vegetable oil labels that say, “contains 0% cholesterol”, when in fact all vegetable oils DO NOT contain cholesterol. By implication, consumers would then assume that only those oils labelled with the “contains 0% cholesterol” are the healthier choice as only they contain no cholesterol. 

If this irks you, here are some facts on vegetable oil complied by registered dietitian Gabi Steenkamp: 

  • All vegetables oils are naturally free of cholesterol. 
  • Vegetable oils have differing fatty acid compositions which function differently in the body – this is the pertinent information the consumer should be given. 
  • All vegetable oils have the same energy value (kJ or Cal), and there is no such thing as a “lite” vegetable oil. 
  • Vegetable oils are manufactured by different methods, and this may affect the nutritional content of the oil.  

Steenkamp says this is all information that the consumer should be made aware of, and not be misled by.  

ALSO READ: What’s in my juice?

So, how do you check the food label claims? 

Jackson can make claims such as, “Our products are free of growth hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, chemically manufactured flavourings and pesticides. In other words, our products are real, organic and 100% good for your health!” on his business’ website, because he physically checks out the farms and the farmers that provides the products to his market.  

food labels free range eggs
“There is no definitive protocol for what constitutes free-range for chickens in South Africa,” says Gary Jackson. Photo: Supplied

“We know exactly who our suppliers are, and exactly what they do. Then we make claims based on a supplier, not on a category.” 

By making sure you know exactly where your products come from, what conditions they are grown under and that there is traceability of the products, you can ensure that you get the best quality.  

“We also insist that producers put their websites and contact details on their products, and that customers can visit the farm at any time,” says Jackson. “That empowers the customer to make the informed decision and to be able to follow up on claims.” 

His recommendation is to find a store where you can find answers to questions about the origin and traceability of the products you buy and under which conditions they are produced. 

ALSO READ: Sweetie, do you know where your honey comes from?

Organisations that you can trust 

EATegrity 

EATegrity researches the complex nature of alternative and industrialised food systems and their impact on nutritional food security, public health, animal welfare, social justice, climate justice, environmental justice and food sovereignty to seek to support authentic solutions.  

Working with and integrating knowledge from different disciplines from a global community of farmers, chefs, academics, retailers, activists, NGOs, journalists, health advocates, environmentalists, scientists, certifiers, researchers and consumers, EATegrity advocates for traceable transparency towards a more equitable and healthy food system. 

Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) 

PGS are locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange. 

It is a peer guarantee, affordable certification system that is done by peers of the food industry. That includes farmers, customers and retailers that jointly hold the producers of products accountable. 

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