Food for Thought – How useful are Nutrition labels to the average South African?
With escalating rates of lifestyle-related health issues globally, it has never been more important that consumers are aware of the factors which are under their control when they make food choices. Understanding and correctly interpreting food labels can enable consumers to make informed decisions about the foods they choose to purchase and provide to their families.
In the 2011 study Consumers’ knowledge of food label information: an exploratory investigation in Potchefstroom, South Africa, some valuable insights were gained despite the limited scope.
The study was limited to a group of 299 participants, of which the largest component was Afrikaans-speaking females with a tertiary education and no children. However, 4% and 38% of respondents had below grade 12 or up to grade 12 levels of education respectively.
While information such as best before dates, storage instructions and identifying symbols such as Halaal or Heart Foundation endorsements were easily and accurately identified by the vast majority of respondents, only 53% of respondents were able to calculate how many serving sizes were included in a product. Since many food labels give nutritional information ‘per serving’ – this indicates a clear problem in correct application of the information, even if the values themselves are largely understood, and the participants are well educated. In addition, manufacturers are required to include nutritional values per 100g – however whether this will be of benefit to a consumer making an in-store decision under a time constraint is debatable.
While many consumers may be aware that is it recommended for them to cut back on saturated fat, only 3% of respondents could correctly identify a food as being low in saturated fat.
Under the current labelling regulations (R146/2010) the amount of saturated fat ‘per serving’ and ‘per 100 g’ are mandatory where nutritional information or claims are provided.
Even more importantly, as long as a food manufacturer does not make any nutritional claims about their product – it is not compulsory for them to publish these details at all. And this is not entirely negative – smaller manufacturers without the funds to have their product analysed by an accredited laboratory every 3 years should certainly not be prevented from entering the marketplace in the first place; and they will still be required to provide a list of ingredients, additives, allergens, storage information, etc.
But does reading and understanding food labels actually lead to improved choices?
According to Food and nutrition labelling: the past, present and the way forward (Koen et al., 2016), the short answer is yes. People who make use of food labels were found to be more likely to make informed food choices in practice – with their diets reflecting a reduced fat, cholesterol, sodium, and overall energy intake, and increased consumption of fibre, iron and vitamin C.
In light of this since the publication of the latest regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs, or R146/2010, we have certainly made some progress towards food labelling practices which are easier for the average consumer to understand, however there is still significant room for improvement.
Looking at the largest South African study to date conducted after the implementation of the new regulations, conducted by Bosman et al. with 1997 respondents across four ethnic groups – some general areas of interest were uncovered:
• Most consumers are able to locate the nutritional information on packaging, however some expressed uncertainty in their understanding of the information provided.
• Consumers who did not read labels on a frequent basis indicated lack of interest, habitual purchasing, price concerns and time constraints as the main reasons.
Furthermore, in 2008, 41% of women and 21% of men in South Africa were classified as obese, with 32% of females and 35% of males with high blood pressure, which are considered to be diseases of lifestyle. (WHO, 2014). Between 2010 and 2011, the Department of Health enacted laws governing Trans- Fat and saturated fat in foods and their labelling. Similarly, Sodium reduction laws, currently being revised, were published in 2013, for enforcement between 2016 and 2019.
In essence, many consumers still have difficulty putting their knowledge into action when making purchasing decisions, even with the current labelling systems. While there may be scope to improve the current R146 regulations and make them more accessible to the average consumer – a certain degree of accountability must be taken by individuals as well. Fine tuning the regulations and bringing them in line with global best practices is a goal we certainly need to strive towards, however the education of the public in making food choices is clearly just as vital.
Engagement invitation: What are your thoughts? Do you find nutritional labels hard to decipher? Let us know in the comments section below.
Article by: Catherine Robinson
1. van der Merwe D, Bosman M, Ellis S, de Beer H, Mielmann A. Consumers’ knowledge of food label information: an exploratory investigation in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Public Health Nutr 2012: 16(3) 403-408.
2. Koen N, Blaauw R, Wentzel-Viljoen E. Food and nutrition labelling: the past, present and the way forward. S Afr J Clin Nutr 2016: 29(1) 13-21.
3. World Health Organization. Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD). Country Profiles, 2014.