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Easy-to-understand labels could save your time in the shop — and your health.

Let’s face it: Nutrition labels are hard to read.

In South Africa, confusing and overly technical nutritional information is buried at the back of the tins, boxes and bottles we buy at the store. But front-of-package labelling translates the information consumers need to know into simple language and puts it right on the front of foodstuffs.

At least 10 countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Chile, have already switched to front-of-package labelling or will in coming years. Now, South Africa looks set to join them.

Globally, front-of-package labelling can take different forms.

In some countries, front-of-package labelling looks like a traffic robot, colour-coding the levels of nutrients of concern like salt or sugar based on whether they are low or high. However, research from Australia and the United Kingdom has found this form of front-of-label packaging may be ineffective.

In other places, food may carry a badge that says that it’s a healthy option overall. Lastly, some countries may choose to use front-of-package labels that simply say how many servings, for instance of fruits or vegetables, are in a given food.

But “high in” front-of-pack warning labels, which clearly identify products that are high in things like sugar, salt, saturated fat or trans fat — what experts call “nutrients of concern” — are the most effective at helping consumers spot unhealthy foods.

1. Why does South Africa need a front-of-package label? 

South Africa needs front-of-package labelling to help consumers make better choices and live healthier lives.

Globally, ultra-processed foods often high in salt, sugar and fat are more available than ever before in low and middle-income countries, including South Africa. A diet high in sugar, salt and fat can put you at risk of developing a range of conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart disease — or what are often called non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

More than six out of 10 women above the age of 15 in South Africa are overweight or obese, putting them at risk of developing life-threatening illnesses, shows data from the most recent South African Demographic and Household in 2016. Overall, the World Health Organisation estimates that almost one in three South Africans were obese in 2016. About 13% of children in South Africa are also over weight – more than twice the global average.

As a result of trends like this, more people in South Africa are dying from NCDs than ever before, according to Statistics South Africa. Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are all among the top 10 leading causes of natural death in the country, according to the latest figures from 2017.

In a 2012 national survey, about one in five people surveyed either had high blood pressure or were on track to develop the condition unless they changed their dietsAbout a quarter of adults had high cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.  

2. Do front-of-package labels really work to change the way people shop and eat? 

Yes. Front of package labels that state a food is “high in” or has “excessive” amounts of nutrients of concern – think sugar, salt and trans fat, for instance – are proven to help consumers tell if a food is healthy or not.

For instance, in one study shoppers who were presented with sugary fruit juices bearing these warning labels were less likely to view the beverages as healthy, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine. Fruit juices are often a hidden source of sugar in many people’s diets who may mistakenly believe them to be healthy.

Consumers were similarly better able to identify unhealthy yogurts, juice, crackers and bread when these products came with front of package warning labels, another 2020 study in the journal Food Quality and Preference found.

But these food warning labels don’t just help consumers make better choices at the till. Several studies, including one conducted among more than 600 young people, found that front of package labels can also make people less likely to buy unhealthy food in the future.

And front of package labels can save lives and money. In Mexico, front of package labels warning of excess nutrients of concern like sugar and salt are expected to avert more than a million cases of obesity in Mexico and save the country more than R25 billion in healthcare costs over five years, researchers found in another 2020 study also featured in PLOS Medicine.

3. But South Africa already includes nutritional labels on food, aren’t these good enough?

No. Several studies have shown that people globally and in South Africa have trouble reading traditional nutritional labels — even if they might not know it. Researchers in India, Mexico and South Africa have all found that many people actually understand nutritional labels less well than they think, found a 2015 article published in the Global Health Action journal.

For instance, most people in a 2011 study in the North West reported regularly reading nutritional labels. But when scientists quizzed study participants on how well they understood these labels, test scores revealed that even frequent readers did not always understand how to use labels to make better food choices.

A third of participants didn’t even read labels.

4. When will South Africa introduce front-of-package labels?

It’s not clear when South Africa’s national health department will release new draft guidance on front-of-package label requirements. It will be the first step in a long road to consumer-friendly policies that will help counter big corporation’s influence on what we eat for a more food-just South Africa.

Until then, scientists across the country are working on new research that will help guide the country’s rollout of new, easier-to-use labels that will save consumers’ time — and health.

The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) is a coalition advancing food justice in South Africa. For updates, follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter.