From allergens to sugar content – what is in their food is becoming more important to South Africans. Navigating the cluttered content of food labels and stickers can, however, be a little tricky. Here are some tips on making sure you know exactly what product you are buying.
Food labels are a minefield for consumers to navigate, says Johannesburg food retailer Gary Jackson. He is the founder of Jackson’s Real Food Market and Eatery and is no stranger to navigating the labelling 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.
Laws that govern South African food labels
Many regulations govern the production, marketing and labelling of food to protect the consumer. According to Food Facts, labelling legislation in South Africa is complex, and in addition to the laws and regulations, there is no single regulatory authority for the labelling of foodstuffs.
The most relevant of these laws are the Consumer Protection Act, The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, the Agricultural Products Standards Act and the National Health Act and their subcategory regulations.
The loopholes that have consumers fooled
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 implication on labels and marketing information. For Jackson, this is most prominent when it comes to the eggs that we buy.
There is such a broad spectrum of applications for the term “free-range” that might not necessarily overlap with what the consumer expects it to mean.
Another example is vegetable oil labels that state “contains 0% cholesterol” when, in fact, all vegetable oils DO NOT contain cholesterol. By implication, consumers would assume that only those oils expressly labelled as such, are the healthier, cholesterol-free choice.
The truth about vegetable oil
Registered dietician Gabi Steenkamp shares more facts about vegetable oil:
- All vegetable 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 stresses that this information should be used to inform consumers, not to mislead them.
Consumers can apply similar checks for seemingly beneficial claims on other products.
So how can a retailer like Jackson claim on his business website, “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!” It is because he visits all the farmers who provide the produce on his market shelves.
“We know exactly who our suppliers are, and exactly what they do. Then we make claims based on a supplier, not on a category.
“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.
Consumers can also find trusted sources of information to help them discern between clever marketing and fact.
Finding products you can trust
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. All this in an effort to support authentic solutions.
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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 in the food industry. That includes farmers, customers and retailers that jointly hold the producers of products accountable.