Decoding the label on your favourite food

When I was still working within the Ministry of Health several years ago there was a mysterious case reported by a shopper in Binga.

A concerned shopper noticed that the sugar being sold at one supermarket had gone past its expiry date (as per the label) and raised the alarm with the resident food inspector. After further investigation the shop was allowed to continue selling the sugar. The reason being that sugar is not expected, by law, to have an expiry date.

I won’t get into the details of this particular case but I will today highlight what information is supposed to be placed on food we find in our shops and what it tells the shopper.

In previous articles I have advised consumers to stay informed on the foods they eat and most of the information is available in clear print, primarily because the law requires it to be there. 

Why does the law require certain foods to be labelled?

A label is any mark, tag, picture or description attached to a food product. The purpose of the label is to promote its sale or disposal. Retailers and consumers don’t know what is inside a packet and when it was packed.

The label communicates that information and allows the shopper and retailer to make informed decisions on that food. In a perfect world, shoppers would read the labels and use them to compare different products before buying them.

Similarly, retailers will use the label to decide whether a product fits their clientele or when to remove from the shelves on account of freshness. The law is there to make business more transparent and therefore has stipulations on the minimum information required in food labels. This makes things simpler for everyone involved. 

The labels you should look out for and what they tell you

1. Identity of manufacturer or distributor

This is very important and my advice for anyone buying prepackaged food is that avoid buying a product without this information. Besides that product being illegal, there are other risks associated with the product. For example, who will you approach if you develop any illness as a result of that food? Again, if a manufacturer is not willing to be identified with their product you should suspect some shady business. The law requires that the food label must show the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor as well as the exact location where the food is produced.

2. Accurate measure of contents

This is a no-brainer. You wouldn’t want to pay for 2kg of meat only to get home and discover its 1kg. The manufacturer will most certainly not let you get away with the opposite.

3. Name of the food

For the benefit of consumers, foods must be identifiable by the label on their packaging. Distributors or manufacturers must avoid vague descriptions that are not easy to understand. If you buy oil labelled as olive oil and only discover that its canola oil then you can be certain it’s not your mistake.

4. Identify all the ingredients

If food is made from two or more ingredients the packaging must list the ingredients in descending order of proportion by mass. Preservatives, coloring and flavoring must be identified as well.

5. Specify if the food has undergone radiation or genetic modification

The manufacturer must state if the food has been treated with ionizing radiation or if any of the ingredients have been genetically modified. 

6. Date of minimum durability

The manufacturer is mandated to indicate the period of minimum durability using the “Best Before” and “Use By” tag. This is where most consumers get confused so I will first explain what the law states then attempt to clarify what one should do when food has gone past the date.

The law in Zimbabwe requires that foods be labeled using Best Before DDMM if the minimum durability is not more than three months.  Foods labelled “Best Before DDMMYY” have a minimum durability of 3 months or more. Foods with a shelf life not exceeding 30 days are labelled “Use By DDMM”. Many people notice this part of the food label and are often confused by what the terms mean.

Another issue is the prevalence of foods from outside the country which use the “Expiry Date” label. The definition of that term would depend on the country of origin. I will now do my best to address the common question “Should I eat food that has gone past its best before date?”. 

Firstly, foods with the “Use By” label have a short shelf life as has been explained earlier. I would advise against consumption or use of the foods for cooking. So the short answer is don’t eat or buy food that’s past its use by date. Secondly the “Best Before” label is used for two classes of foods; those with a shelf life of 1 to 3 months and foods with a shelf life of over three months. In general, the foods are considered to be in peak quality before the dates on the label but in practice they can be used after the dates.

I advise against buying food past its best before date. However, if the food is already in your home, I would advise you to use your discretion by physically checking the food before you throw it away. The reason is that you know better how you have been storing the food. The second reason is that evidence suggests that a lot of food is wasted globally, partly as a result of strict ‘date-watching’. I will write about food wastage in future articles but it’s important to point out that it contributes to global food shortages, price hikes and global warming.  


The law protects consumers by making labels mandatory but it is still the responsibility of the consumer to check that the food they are consuming is what they expect. Please note that some foods are exempted from these regulations for certain reasons I did not get into to keep the article brief. My advice for readers is that one needs to see past the glossy packaging and use facts to make decisions. If you have questions or suggested topics you would like to see covered here please get in touch. 

Brief Bio:

Craig Nyathi is a Nutritionist registered with the Allied Health Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe. He has over ten years’ experience practicing public health nutrition in Zimbabwe. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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