Many consumers have health concerns that benefit from understanding claims made on food packaging. These are often part of the marketing of a food product so do not appear on the “Nutrition Facts” section of the label. The terms you may see are definitions of the relative amounts of a particular component of the food based on what is noted as the serving size. Examples would include calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and fiber.
With regard to calories, the terms you might see would be “calorie free”, “low calorie”, or “reduced calorie”. The FDA approved definition of “calorie free” is having less than 5 calories per serving. For “low calorie”, the serving must contain <40 calories. A “reduced calorie” item would have >25% fewer calories than the regular product.
For describing the fat content of a product based on serving size, you might see “fat free,” “low fat,” “reduced fat,” or “less fat” or “low in saturated fat.” Fat-free foods must contain less than 0.5gm of fat and no ingredient that is fat. “Low fat” means <3gm fat and not more than 30% of calories from fat for meals/main dishes. “Reduced fat” is defined as >25% less fat than the regular product.
A product “low in saturated fat” has <1gm saturated fat per serving. It must also not have more than 15% of calories from saturated fat for a singular food or have less than 10% of calories for meals/main dishes.
Cholesterol guidelines have changed over the past few years, as saturated fat appears to be the bigger offender relative to cardiovascular issues. However, it is suggested that consumers who have cardiovascular risk factors still lean toward more moderate intake. A food labeled as “cholesterol free” must have <2mg of cholesterol and not contain an ingredient that contains cholesterol. A “low cholesterol” claim would mean <20mg per serving, and a “reduced cholesterol” food would have at least 25% less than the regular product.
Other ways of defining some foods containing fat might be “lean,” “extra lean,” or “light” (“lite”). A “lean” food product must contain less than 10gm of fat, less than 4.5gm of saturated fat, and less than 95mg of cholesterol. “Extra lean” means <5gm fat, <2gm saturated fat, and <95mg cholesterol. Light foods must have at least 50% less fat than the regular product or 1/3 fewer calories if <50% of calories are from fat.
There are many label indicators for sodium content. The terms “sodium free,” “salt free,” or “no sodium” indicate a food product containing <5gm of sodium and no ingredient that is sodium chloride or contains sodium. “Very low sodium” means <35mg sodium and “low sodium” means <140mg sodium. “Reduced sodium” or “less sodium” foods must have >25% less sodium than the regular product and “light (or “lite”) sodium” foods have >50% less sodium than the regular product. The word “lightly salted” means 50% less than what is normally added to the food.
“No salt added” or “unsalted” indicates that no salt was added during processing. If the food is not sodium free, the statement “not a sodium free food” or “not for control of sodium in the diet” must also appear on the label.
When it comes to relative sugar content, you may see terms such as “sugar free,” “reduced sugar” or “less sugar” or “no added sugar.” A sugar free food must have <0.5gm of sugar and no ingredient that is a sugar. A food labeled with “reduced sugar” or “less sugar” must contain at least 25% less sugar than the regular product. “No added sugar” requires that no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing.
Claims for relative amounts of fiber can also be seen on some food labels. A food “high in fiber” or “an excellent source of fiber” must contain 20% or more of the Daily Value (DV) for fiber. A “good source of fiber” needs to contain 10-19% of the DV for fiber.
Other terms you might see are “more,” “fortified,” “enriched,” “added,” “extra,” or “plus.” They may only be used relative to vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, and potassium. These indicate that the food has >10% of the DV of the identified nutrient as compared to the regular product.
Although this sounds like a lot to remember, you can see some repetition and similarities with regard to how these terms are defined. An example would be the term “reduced” meaning the food has at least 25% less than the regular food product.
What consumers need to keep in mind is that all these numbers are based on a single serving size as noted on the food label. If more or less than one serving is consumed, this should be considered with regard to how the numbers change.
Also be aware that in some definitions, they are relative terms rather than concrete amounts. For example, a person who needs to limit sodium should not assume that because a label indicates that it is a “reduced sodium” product, that it is low in sodium and can be consumed in larger amounts. For instance, the regular version of a food may contain a high amount of sodium, so the reduced version can still contain a large amount of sodium (as in reduced sodium soy sauce). A reduced sugar claim on a high sugar food may still be high in sugar and be a more processed food.
Another thing to consider is that just because a food is lower in a potentially problematic nutritional component, it does not necessarily mean that the food item is a healthy choice. As an example, a food labeled as “low fat” might be higher in sodium or sugar. Also note that in the case of fats, although higher fat foods may contain more calories than some other foods, nutritional guidelines suggest that identifying the type of fat is of greater importance relative to health (choosing unsaturated over saturated).
In evaluating a food label, consider using the terms noted above to help you make wiser choices about your food intake. Also, review the ingredient list and the “Nutrition Facts” label to get a more complete picture. Think about any medical issues you have and the guidelines that are suggested to lower your risk of health concerns. With all these tools in your tool bag, you can move forward towards better health.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and provides guidance in sports nutrition. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).