What Do Those Food-Label Terms Really Mean?
We crack the code behind confusing terms such as “natural,” “reduced,” “light” and “extra” to help you shop smarter.
A trip to the supermarket can feel like running a gauntlet of buzzwords. This product promises it’s “reduced sodium,” while that one is “natural” and “gluten-free.” Is a food “made with extra fiber” better than “excellent source of fiber,” or vice versa? Just how low in calories does a food have to be to boast that it’s “low-calorie”—and should you pick that label over one that’s “lower calorie” or “light”?
“It is a whole language unto itself and unfortunately most of us get little training in reading or speaking it,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. “Although meant to be helpful, it is not always intuitive. It is worth taking the time to understand the terms.”
The US Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a sweeping makeover of the Nutrition Facts labels that detail how many calories and how much of various nutrients a product contains per serving. But that familiar label is only the tip of an iceberg of regulations and labeling language administered by the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture. When referring to nutrients, everything from the meaning of “free” to “excellent” is spelled out in government regulations. Unless you understand a few essential facts about those rules, however, the resulting product promises can be useless at best or outright misleading at worst.
AVOIDANCE STRATEGIES: For starters, it helps to break down which agency regulates what. In general, the FDA oversees labeling of packaged foods and seafood, while the USDA governs fresh produce, meat, poultry and dairy foods. But any product, including packaged goods, that claims to be “organic” must meet standards set by the USDA. And jurisdiction for some foods depends on how they’re sold: The FDA regulates eggs in the shell, while dried, frozen and liquid eggs (but not imitation egg products) fall under the USDA’s purview.
Broadly speaking, the FDA allows four types of special labels:
- Nutrient content claims
- Health claims
- Qualified health claims
- Structure/function claims.
We’ve looked at the two types of health claims and the related structure/function claims in previous Special Reports. Although the regulatory hoops required to make such a claim can be convoluted, the actual claims are pretty straightforward, such as: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of walnuts, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
Much more common—and less obvious in their meaning—are “nutrient content claims,” which we’ll mostly focus on in this Special Supplement. You can recognize such claims by the use of a few key terms or approved synonyms. For nutrients like sodium or saturated fat that consumers might be trying to avoid, these are:
- Free (or “zero,” “no,” “without,” “negligible source of,” “dietarily insignificant source of”)
- Low (or “little,” “few,” “contains a small amount of,” “low source of”)
- Reduced or Less (or “lower,” “fewer”)—Note that these are relative terms, describing a modification to a food’s ordinary content.
The exact definitions of these terms, however, depends on the nutrient. Each is also defined based on “Reference Amount Customarily Consumed” (RACC)—generally, one serving, though the RACC may not be identical to the “serving” listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. Whenever we refer to “serving” here, we mean specifically the RACC.
Here are the primary guidelines set by the FDA for these nutrients you might be seeking to avoid at the supermarket:
- Calories — A product must contain fewer than 5 calories per serving to be labeled “calorie free” or “zero calorie” and no more than 40 calories to be “low calorie” (120 for meals and main dishes). “Reduced” calorie foods contain 25% fewer calories per serving than ordinary such foods, while “light” or “lite” versions must also be lower in fat, although the absolute degree of reduction is not specified.
-Total fat — “Fat-free” products can contain no ingredients that are fats and no more than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. The maximum for “low-fat” foods is 3 grams; meals and main dishes must also derive no more than 30% of calories from fat. “Reduced-fat” means at least 25% less fat than in similar, non-reduced fat products. (Keep in mind that nutrition experts advise concentrating on avoiding saturated and trans fats, not fats in general, so don’t be overly swayed by lower total fat claims.)
- Saturated fat — The same 0.5-gram rule applies for “free” products, but the limit for “low” saturated-fat foods is 1 gram per serving (as well as less than 10% of calories from saturated fat for meals and main dishes). “Reduced” means 25% less saturated fat.
- Trans fat — The FDA has proposed that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary dietary source of artificial trans fat in processed foods, be ruled no longer “generally recognized as safe.” Under current FDA rules, foods can have up to 0.5 gram of trans fats per serving and still be labeled “free” or “zero” trans fats. Check the ingredients list for “partially hydrogenated oils” to be sure.
- Cholesterol — Per serving limits are 2 milligrams for “free” and 20 milligrams for “low,” and “reduced” means 25% less than originally present. (As explained in our May newsletter, however, experts now say most people don’t need to worry about dietary cholesterol—which is different from the cholesterol in your blood—within the context of levels currently consumed.)
- Sodium — “Sodium free” or “salt free” don’t exactly mean zero sodium; those terms mean less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. “Lower” means 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving. There’s also a rule for “very low sodium”: 35 milligrams or less per serving. “Reduced” sodium means 25% less than regular such foods.
- Sugars — “Sugar free” products contain less than 0.5 gram of sugars per serving and no ingredient generally considered a sugar, such as sucrose, corn syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates and dextrose. The term “low sugar” is not defined and may not be used. “Reduced” means 25% less sugar than originally present. “No added sugars” or “without added sugars” may be used if no sugar was added in processing—but these terms don’t mean “sugar free.” Other factual statements allowed are “unsweetened” and “no added sugars.” Note that “sugar” does not include sugar alcohols, such as the diet sweeteners sorbitol or xylitol, which may be present in “sugar free” foods.
Special rules also apply to the terms lean and extra lean. The USDA defines “lean” meat as having less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and fewer than 95 milligrams of cholesterol in a 3.5-ounce portion. Maximums for “extra lean” are 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol. The same rules apply for seafood and game meats, but these are regulated by the FDA, as are similar limits for meals and main dishes.