Do I Have to Be a Lawyer to Read a Claim on a Food Label?
“Light,” “Free,” “Healthy,” “Low,” “Reduced,” and other claims on food labels seem like common sense descriptions for everyday foods. “Trans fat free” should mean that a food contains absolutely no trans fat. Right? Sort of. Nutrient content claims, such as light, free, and reduced, have legal definitions that may mean something different than our assumptions about the same words. For example, manufacturers may label a product “trans fat free” if the food contains less than 0.5 gram of trans fat and less than 0.5 gram of saturated fat per serving
(emphasis added). If the serving size is 1 cookie, each cookie may contain up to 0.5 gram of trans fat. If you eat 3 cookies, you may get up to 1.5 grams of trans fat. Such amount seems minimal. However, since experts currently recommend that we consume zero or no more than a couple of grams of trans fat per day, 1.5 grams of trans fat in 3 cookies may lead to an unexpected excess. Therefore, to fully understand what you eat in packaged foods, you must understand the definitions of nutrient content claims. You may choose to eat the cookies anyway even if you know it may contain up to 0.5 gram trans fat per serving, or cookie in this case, but at least you know what you are eating.
Below are the definitions of some common nutrient content claims
- Free means that a product contains none or only negligible amounts of fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, and/or calories. For instance, “calorie free” means fewer than 5 calories per serving.
- Low indicates that the food can be eaten frequently without exceeding dietary guidelines for fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and/or calories. More specifically:
- Low-fat: 3 grams or fewer per serving;
- Low saturated fat: no more than 1 gram per serving;
- Low sodium:no more than 140 milligrams per serving;
- Very low sodium: no more than 35 milligrams per serving;
- Low cholesterol: no more than 20 milligrams and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving;
- Low calorie: no more than 40 calories per serving.
- Lean and extra lean describe the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood and game meats:
- Lean: fewer than 10 grams of fat, no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving (or 100 grams);
- Exra lean: fewer than 5 grams of fat, fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat, and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving (or 100 grams).
- High is used when a serving of food contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.
- Good source indicates that a serving of the food supplies 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.
- Reduced denotes a product that has been nutritionally altered and contains 25 percent less of a nutrient such as fat or calories than the regular, unaltered product. A product cannot be labeled “reduced,” however, if the regular version of the food already meets the requirements for a “low” claim. That is, if a food is “low fat” to begin with, it cannot be called “reduced” if manufacturers take even more fat out of it.
- Less means that a food contains 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than a comparable food. For example, pretzels containing 25 percent less fat than potato chips carry a “less fat” claim. Fewer can be used in the same way.
- Light carries several meanings. First, a nutritionally altered food contains one-third fewer calories than or half the fat of the regular product. If fat supplies 50 percent or more of the calories to begin with, it must be reduced by half to be called “light.” Second, if the sodium content of a low-fat, low-calorie food has been reduced by 50 percent but the food is not low in fat and calories, it must be labeled “light in sodium.” Third, “light” can be used to describe a food’s color and/or texture, as long as the label explains the intent. For example, “light brown sugar.”
- More means that a serving of the food contains at least 10 percent more of the Daily Value of a particular nutrient than the regular food. The label on calcium fortified bread can state that the product contains “more calcium” than regular bread.
- Percent fat-free in as indication of the amount of a food’s weight that is fat-free, which can be used only on foods that are low-fat or fat-free to begin with. For instance, a food that weighs 100 grams with 3 grams from fat can be labeled “97 percent fat-free.” Note that this term refers to the amount of the food that is fat-free by weight, not calories. If that same food supplies 100 calories, the 3 grams of fat contribute 27 of them (1 gram of fat contains 9 calories). This means that 27 of the 100 calories, or 27 percent of the total calories, come from fat.
- Made with oat bran, no tropical oils claims, known as implied claims, are prohibited if they mislead consumers into believing a product supplies (or lacks) significant levels of nutrients. For example, a manufacturer can say a product is “made with oat bran” only if it contains enough oat bran to meet the definition for a “good source” of fiber.
- Healthy indicates that a food is low in fat and saturated fat; contains no more than 60 milligrams of cholesterol per serving; and provides at least 10 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin A, vitamin C, protein, calcium, iron, or fiber (main dishes must supply at least two of the six nutrients). In addition, the food must meet sodium requirements – no more than 360 milligrams of sodium per serving of individual foods and no more than 480 milligrams per main dish meal.
- On meals and main dish products such as frozen dinners, low calorie can be used if the dish contains no more than 120 calories in 100 grams, or about 3.5 ounces. Specifically: low sodium (the dish supplies no more than 140 milligrams per 100 grams); low cholesterol (a maximum of 20 milligrams and 2 grams saturated fat per 100 grams); light (the dish or meal is low fat or low calorie).
Remember that agencies define nutrition terms based on the needs of the general healthy population. However, individual nutrition needs vary. For example, “Daily Values” also called the “Recommended Dietary Allowance” (RDA), refers to the average daily amount of a nutrient that is sufficient to meet the nutrient needs of nearly all (97-98 percent) healthy individuals of a specific age and gender
. However, your individual need for a particular nutrient may fall into the 2 to 3 percent of individuals not covered by the RDA for the nutrient. Furthermore, a deficiency in any one nutrient may cause an imbalance in several other nutrients. If your body does not convert sunlight to vitamin D and you lack dietary sources of vitamin D, you may be deficient in vitamin D and at high risk for bone loss later in your life. You might learn of the importance of vitamin D and decide to increase your dietary intake. You select foods labeled “high” and “good source” of vitamin D, however, your individual need for vitamin D to correct your vitamin D deficiency may be significantly greater than the RDA. Eating foods that are “high” and a “good source” of vitamin D may help your situation, but you may need far more than a few servings of foods with more than 20 percent of the RDA for vitamin D.
As far as I know, the only way to conclusively know your particular requirement for vitamin D or any other nutrient is to have your doctor run a blood analysis of your nutrient profile. If you are too high or too low in a particular nutrient, your doctor will let you know what supplements to take and in what amounts to correct the deficiency or excess. You might be surprised what your nutrient analysis uncovers. I ate plenty of foods containing beta carotene such as carrots and cantaloupe and never expected I had a vitamin A deficiency. To my surprise, my blood analysis revealed that I convert only a small amount of the beta carotene in my blood to vitamin A. The only way for me to get the vitamin A I need is to consume foods containing pure vitamin A such as cod liver oil tablets.
Lastly, understand that “light” or “less” is relative to the product. A serving of “light” premium ice cream with “less fat” than the regular version still may contain more total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than you want to consume. A better choice might be to eat a “full fat” version of soft serve ice milk lower in fat than “light” premium ice cream. Ask for nutrition information before you buy.
The “buyer beware” rule applies to food purchases. A food label contains a nutrition code that requires some study to fully understand. Take the time to unlock the code so you get what you want in the food you buy.
 Boyle, Marie A. and Long, Sara. Personal Nutrition. 6th Ed., Thomson Wadsworth, 2007, pg. 124.