It’s a decade since South Africa drafted into law food labelling and advertising regulations that forced manufacturers to provide nutrition labels on the back of products, but consumers continue being duped by misleading claims. From baby food to cereal, food products are not always what their labels proclaim them to be.  

How often do you happily reach for that box of multigrain, lowfat, lowsugar and natural cereal, ‘healthy’ granola bar or low-fat yoghurt, confident you are making the healthiest choice for your family? Turns out most of the time it’s a marketing gimmick that lulls consumers into thinking they are making good choices. It’s all designed to catch your attention and convince you the product is healthy. 

Researchers have found that consumers are drawn to what’s perceived as good, like ‘high fibre’, ‘high protein’, ‘organic’ or ‘preservative free’. Claims like ‘light’, ‘low-fat’, ‘low calorie’ or ‘low-sugar’ makes consumers believe that the product helpswith weight loss.   

In a world where healthy and natural are buzzwords and aspirational, such claims are designed to emphasise healthy sounding information about a food—while leaving out information about a food’s unhealthy qualities. 

But an analysis of the nutrition contents label on the back of a product will reveal  lowfat yoghurt is actually really high in sugar, or a product with ‘no artificial flavours or preservatives’ is really high in salt. Manufacturers of baby and children’s food products are amongst the worst culprits, on a mission to hook young taste buds on sugar, salt and fat. Every parent wants the best for their child, so it’s easy to lure them with promises to make kids ‘smarter and stronger.’

Wits University’s PRICELESS SA, a research to policy unit conducted research in 2019 into readily available baby food, analysing the content of a variety of products, including boxes of cereals and jars of processed food. Their findings showed that most baby cereals have added sugar, with pureed fruit and desserts having very high levels of sugar (20g or more per servingabout 4 teaspoons).

Dietary recommendations dictate the maximum sugar intake per day by age group is:

Four to six years old – 19g (5 teaspoons)
Seven to 10 years – 24g (6 teaspoons)
From 11 years – 30g (7 teaspoons)

There’s no guideline limit for children under four years of age, but it’s recommended that they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and foods with added sugar.

Foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat are highly processed, paving the way for obesity and health issues later on. It’s estimated that 1.6 million children in South Africa (1 in 4 girls, 1 in 5 boys) are obese, a condition that’s increasingly worse in children than adults. 

Concerned by the link between the excessive consumption of foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat and obesity and related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, strokes, heart disease and some cancers, the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) launched a campaign in 2019 to inform South Africans of the nutritional content of commonly consumed processed food.

Popular corn, wheat, and bran cereals were found to be high in salt, yoghurt high in sugar, instant noodles high in salt and sugar, and polony high in saturated fat and salt. 

Back of product labels

The solution seems simple enough, to read the food label on the back of a product, which lists the nutritional content like sodium (salt), types of fats, sugar, caloriesBut the labels can be confusing, as the labels are in a tiny font, which makes it hard to read, and most people don’t understand the content, says Professor Karen Hofman, Director of PRICELESS.

According to Statistics South AfricaEnglish is the sixth most spoken language in the country, with only 8.1% of South African households speaking English at home. Thus for the majority of the population, the food labels, which are mostly in English, may not be comprehensible. 

Various studies analysing consumers’ knowledge and reading of nutritional information have found that consumers find the list of ingredients to be complex and technical, and sometimes deceptive. 

Vox pops  

Health-e visited a few supermarkets to gauge consumer behaviour and food choices. 

“I trust the labels. I don’t read the information, but I look out for the heart health and diabetes logos. I’m likely to purchase items that are labelled organic and natural or sugar-free. I have a busy lifestyle so choose fresh ready-made meals like a rotisserie or pasta, but also buy pre-packaged meals like chicken schnitzels,” Michelle, 47, lawyer. 

“No, I don’t look at the labels. I don’t know what’s on there. I buy what is cheap, and what I like,” Sifiso, 34, electrician. 

“Nutrition and fitness are important to me, so I always look at the label if I’m trying something new. I have a personal trainer who taught me not to trust what a label says, and how to understand all the numbers and terms. I avoid fruit juices, fruit yoghurt, and most cereals because I know they’re high in sugar. I don’t eat processed meat, and am careful with cheese and condiments like mayonnaise because they’re high in saturated fats which raise cholesterol levels. I look out for saturated fat content that’s 1.5g or less per 100g and sugar that’s 5g or less per 100g,” Sibongile, 31, marketing manager.

My children have explained it, but I just don’t understand it. Just looking at all these numbers is confusing. In my younger days, I was always dieting, and would choose items that had low-fat written on them. Then I was told fat is good, and sugar is bad. I’m in my sixties and have no health problems, okay I have high blood pressure, but I think it’s okay. I don’t buy boxed food, that’s rubbish. I cook fresh food every day, so fruit juice or a pack of biscuits won’t kill me,” Roshen, 67, housewife. 

Bigger and bolder 

In an effort to make the nutritional content of food products more transparent, the Department of Health plans on introducing new front of product (FoPL) labelling regulations, expected to be legislated later this year.   

The labels will clearly indicate in large font on the front of the product if it’s low in fat or high in sugar, allowing consumers to make more informed choices.  

Hofman says it will also make it far more difficult for manufacturers to get away with misleading claims. 

Gail Schimmel, CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board tells Health-e they receive few complaints related to false advertising of food. It is very few in relation to the regulations. We get complaints about other issues – that there is imitation, that the label is misleading (unrelated to regulations) or that a claim is unsubstantiated.” 

Past complaints include one against an advert by Karan Beef, which claimed beef is part of a healthy daily diet (a higher intake of red meat is linked to certain cancers and cardiovascular disease) and another against the new Kelloggs Rice Krispies. The complainant argued it shouldn’t be called Rice Krispies since it contains only 48% rice flour, amongst other complaints. However, it was found that the labelling complied with the regulations.  

If consumers feel they have been misled, they can lodge a complaint using the online form 

The Foodstuffs Act falls under the Department of Health. Should a consumer feel that a product is unsafe or misleading, they can file a complaint with a municipal environmental health practitioner who will investigate the matter further. 

Janusz Luterek, an expert on the Consumer Protection Act and partner at Hahn & Hahn Attorneys says ‘regulations are compiled and published at national level, and enforced at municipal level by local environmental health officers.

“But this municipal level oversight may not yield consumers the results they want, as Luterek told Health-e, “Regrettably, enforcement of R146 is very poor at best since it was legislated,” she says. – Health-e News  


How to read a nutrition label 

Light. Light products are processed to reduce either calories or fat. Some products are simply watered down. Check carefully to see if anything has been added instead — like sugar. 

Multigrain. This sounds very healthy but only means that a product contains more than one type of grain. These are most likely refined grains — unless the product is marked as whole grain. 

Natural. This does not necessarily mean that the product resembles anything natural. It simply indicates that at one point the manufacturer worked with a natural source like apples or rice. 

Organic. This label says very little about whether a product is healthy. For example, organic sugar is still sugar. 

No added sugar. Some products are naturally high in sugar. The fact that they don’t have added sugar doesn’t mean they’re healthy. Unhealthy sugar substitutes may also have been added. 

Low-calorie. Low-calorie products have to have one-third fewer calories than the brand’s original product. Yet, one brand’s low-calorie version may have similar calories as another brand’s original. 

Low-fat. This label usually means that the fat has been reduced at the cost of adding more sugar. Be very careful and read the ingredients list. 

Low-carb. Recently, low-carb diets have been linked to improved health. Still, processed foods that are labelled low-carb are usually still processed junk foods, similar to processed low-fat foods. 

Made with whole grains. The product may contain very little whole grains. Check the ingredients list  if whole grains aren’t in the first three ingredients, the amount is negligible. 

Fortified or enriched. This means that some nutrients have been added to the product. For example, vitamin D is often added to milk. Yet, just because something is fortified doesn’t make it healthy. 

Gluten-free.Glutenfree doesn’t mean healthy. The product simply doesn’t contain wheat, spelt, rye, or barley. Many gluten-free foods are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugar. 

Fruit-flavoured. Many processed foods have a name that refers to a natural flavour, such as strawberry yogurt. However, the product may not contain any fruit — only chemicals designed to taste like fruit. 

Zero trans-fat. This phrase means “less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.” Thus, if serving sizes are misleadingly small, the product may still contain trans-fat (5 Trusted Source).