Tips on shopping and reading food labels

The consensus in the literature on cancer prevention is that following a low fat diet, focusing on the inclusion of healthy fats, is the way to go. 

  • There is always a healthier option available.
  • Plan what you are going to eat for the week so that you can go shopping for the necessary ingredients. Write a shopping list and stick to it.
  • Never go shopping when you are hungry.
  • Keep an eye out for new lower fat and sugar options – food manufacturers are realising the need for healthier options.
  • Initially you will need to spend some time looking for the low fat and diabetic products, but once you know where they are kept, it will get easier. 
  • Reduced fat does not mean low fat. A reduced fat product only has to have 25% less fat and can therefore still be a high fat product (e.g. reduced fat cheese).
  • Low-fat does not mean fat-free.
  • Sucrose free diabetic chocolate has more fat than most regular chocolates.
  • Food labels are often designed to be misleading.
  • Look at the fat content per portion size not always per 100g or percentage. A product such as breadcrumbs will have a high fat content per 100g, but the fat content per portion size is likely to be negligible.
  • Read the front of the packaging briefly and the back slowly and carefully. The most important information is often the smallest print usually hidden in the folds of the wrapping.
  • Ingredients are listed in order of weight. This means that the biggest (by weight) ingredient comes first on the list and the smallest ingredient is last. Therefore, if the food you are trying to avoid is in the top three ingredients then you should probably be avoiding that product. 
  • If in doubt, contact the manufactures. Contact details should always be on the back of products. 
  • Look out for disguises. Learn aliases; e.g. fat can be called hydrogenated fat, shortening, lard, etc. Sugar can be called sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, cane sugar, corn syrup, sorbitol, etc.
  • Be ready for chemical warfare. On a positive note, many manufacturers seem to be trying to make products without adding flavourants, colorants, preservatives, etc. 
  • REMEMBER: look for low-GI options, as well as the Diabetes South Africa Logos.
Labeling legislation



Berna Harmse is a private practicing dietitian in Cape Town, she holds a MSc in Dietetics and has a special interest in oncology nutrition. She is also an external lecturer at Stellenbosch University Division of Human Nutrition.