With the new focus on health, and the preponderance of “low” diets — low fat, low sodium, and low cholesterol, the food industry has been making claims about their products that have led to confusion in the marketplace. This can make it hard for consumers to make good choices about packaged foods.
The FDA provides regulations that spell out what terms may be used to describe the level of a nutrient in a food and how they can be used. These are the core terms:
Free. This term means that a product contains no amount of, or only trivial or “physiologically inconsequential” amounts of, one or more of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and calories. For example, “calorie-free” means fewer than 5 calories per serving, and “sugar-free” and “fat-free” both mean less than 0.5 g per serving. Other words for “free” include “without,” “no” and “zero.” Another word for fat-free milk is “skim”.
Low. This term can be used on foods that can be eaten frequently without exceeding dietary guidelines for one or more of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories. Other words for low include “little,” “few,” “low source of,” and “contains a small amount of.” These are spelled out below:
- low-fat: 3 g or less per serving
- low-saturated fat: 1 g or less per serving
- low-sodium: 140 mg or less per serving
- very low sodium: 35 mg or less per serving
- low-cholesterol: 20 mg or less and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving
- low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
Lean and extra lean. These terms are used to describe the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats.
- lean: less than 10 g fat, 4.5 g or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g.
- extra lean: less than 5 g fat, less than 2 g saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 g
High.This term can be used if the food contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving. (For example High in fiber)
Good source. This term means that one serving of a food contains 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient. (For example a Good Source of Vitamin C)
Reduced.This term means that a nutritionally altered product contains at least 25 percent less of a nutrient or of calories than the regular product. However, a reduced claim can’t be made on a product if it already meets the requirement for a “low” claim. (For example Reduced Fat or Reduced Calorie)
Less. This term means that a food, whether altered or not, contains 25 percent less of a nutrient or of calories than the reference food. For example, pretzels that have 25 percent less fat than potato chips could carry a “less” claim. “Fewer” is an acceptable synonym.
Light. This can mean that a nutritionally altered product contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the original food. If the food gets 50 percent or more of its calories from fat, the reduction must be 50 percent of the fat to be considered light.
“Light in sodium” may be used for foods in which the sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent.
To add to the confusion over this term, “light” can still be used to describe such properties as texture and color, as long as the label explains the intent–for example, “light brown sugar” and “light and fluffy.”
More.This term means that a serving of food, whether altered or not, contains a nutrient that is at least 10 percent of the Daily Value more than the reference food. The 10 percent of Daily Value also applies to “fortified,” “enriched” and “added” “extra and plus” claims, but in those cases, the food must be altered. Alternative spelling of these descriptive terms and their synonyms is allowed–for example, “hi” and “lo”–as long as the alternatives are not misleading.
Healthy. A “healthy” food must be low in fat and saturated fat and contain limited amounts of cholesterol and sodium. In addition, if it’s a single-item food, it must provide at least 10 percent of one or more of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
Exempt from this “10-percent” rule are certain raw, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables and certain cereal-grain products. These foods can be labeled “healthy,” if they do not contain ingredients that change the nutritional profile, and, in the case of enriched grain products, conform to standards which call for certain required ingredients.
If it’s a pre-packaged meal, such as frozen entrees and multi-course frozen dinners, it must provide 10 percent of two or three of these vitamins or minerals or of protein or fiber, in addition to meeting the other criteria. The sodium content cannot exceed 360 mg per serving for individual foods and 480 mg per serving for meal-type products.
Percent fat free. A product bearing this claim must be a low-fat or a fat-free product. In addition, the claim must accurately reflect the amount of fat present in 100 g of the food. Thus, if a food contains 2.5 g fat per 50 g, the claim must be “95 percent fat free.”
Meals and main dishes. Claims that a meal or main dish is “free” of a nutrient, such as sodium or cholesterol, must meet the same requirements as those for individual foods. Other claims can be used under special circumstances. For example, “low-calorie” means the meal or main dish contains 120 calories or less per 100 g. “Low-sodium” means the food has 140 mg or less per 100 g. “Low-cholesterol” means the food contains 20 mg cholesterol or less per 100 g and no more than 2 g saturated fat. “Light” means the meal or main dish is low-fat or low-calorie.
Implied. Companies may not wrongfully imply that a food contains or does not contain a meaningful level of a nutrient. For example, a product claiming to be made with an ingredient known to be a source of fiber (such as “made with oat bran”) is not allowed unless the product contains enough of that ingredient (for example, oat bran) to meet the definition for “good source” of fiber.
Fresh. Although not mandated, the FDA has issued a regulation for the term “fresh” because of concern over the term’s possible misuse on some food labels. The regulation defines the term “fresh” when it is used to suggest that a food is raw or unprocessed. In this context, “fresh” can be used only on a food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives. (Irradiation at low levels is allowed.) “Fresh frozen,” “frozen fresh,” and “freshly frozen” can be used for foods that are quickly frozen while still fresh. Blanching (brief scalding before freezing to prevent nutrient breakdown) is allowed. Other uses of the term “fresh,” such as in “fresh milk” or “freshly baked bread,” are not affected.