Huh what? How to understand a food label better

November 8, 2018

You know how sometimes you’re told that you should for this on a food label, or make sure you’e not consuming this amount of that on a food label? Or what is GDA? And how do you know if what you’re about to eat has too much is great, not so great, or not great at all?

I received some tips from Nestlé South Africa on how to understand what you’re looking at on a label, and how to make better choices, or simply eat with more awareness of what you’re eating.

Here’s the lowdown:

What do the list of ingredients mean?

Product ingredients are listed in descending order, which means that the first listed ingredient is the main ingredient in the product you are looking at. A good rule of thumb is to look at the first five ingredients as these will be the largest component of what you will be eating. Try to choose items that have whole foods, that is, milk, whole-wheat, corn, etc. listed as the first three ingredients.

Evaluate the ‘per serving’ size.

Nutritional information on a product is generally listed for each 100g of solid food or 100ml of liquid, and then per serving. The serving size is the recommended amount of food/drink you should consume, so don’t confuse the whole package for a single serving size. If you consume the serving size shown in the nutrition table, you will ingest the number of kilojoules/ calories and nutrients that are listed on the food product label.


While it may sound like a fancy degree or a secret code, within the nutrition world, GDA stands for Guideline Daily Amounts. As the name suggests this is a quick reference guide indicating the % of an adult’s GDA for energy (kJ), sugars, fats, saturates and salt contained in a serving of what you are about to eat.

Guideline Daily Amounts are based on the recommendations for an average adult with a healthy weight and average activity level. But, of course, the daily energy or calories needed for men and women are different – so they also have different GDAs for some nutrients. However, to keep things simple, rather than using two sets of figures on every label, GDAs for women are shown as “Adult” GDA on food packaging. That way, if you’re a man, you will know that you are well within your GDAs if you eat the stipulated serving size.

What’s in a number

Foods are considered low in sodium if they contain less than 120mg sodium per 100g as prepared and low in fat if they have 3g or less total fat per 100g.

Photo of bottles: Shutterstock

Calories vs kilojoules?

Calories (kcal) and Kilojoules (kJ) are both units for measuring the energy found in food. To convert: 1 calorie equals 4.184 kilojoules. You should aim to consume the same amount of energy per day that you use up in a day. According to the World Health Organisation, the average energy intake for adults is 8 400 kilojoules (kJ) per day.  If you have three main meals and three snacks a day, a good guideline would be to allocate 25 – 30% (2 100 – 2 520 kJ) of the kilojoules per meal and 5-10% (420 – 840 kJ) per snack.

What does Nutrient Reference Values (NRV) mean?

The NRV percentage provides a quick and easy evaluation of essential nutrients especially proteins, vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function optimally. The NRV allows you to compare the % of different nutrients in the stated serving amount and if necessary evaluate your food selections accordingly.

What’s not on the label – working out the unsaturated fat content?

Add the total amount of saturated fat and trans-fat and subtract this amount from the total fat listed. Mono and Polyunsaturated fats can help lower cholesterol levels so choose these more often.

Some advice….use this information to try increase your intake of:

Fibre (especially wholegrain), mono & polyunsaturated fats (omega 3 & 6), essential vitamins and minerals such as; vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron, calcium and decrease your intake of saturated and trans fats, added sugar and salt. 

Image of bottles: Shutterstock

For more helpful  information visit with tips on Smart Shopping, Reading Food Labels, Know your servings  and a wide range of other informative articles and delicious recipe inspiration. Alternatively, follow Nestlé South Africa on Twitter or Facebook.

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