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Comprehending Food Labels

Nutritional Claims
Labels often contain claims of desirable levels of individual nutrients. Regulations now strictly spell out what terms may be used to describe the level of a nutrient in a food and how those terms can be used. Nutrition claims can be used as another valuable tool that can help you to choose foods that are lower in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and higher in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some of the general claims used include the following:
  • Free: A product contains none or only trivial 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 gram per serving. Other names for "free" that can be used include "without," "no," and "zero." (Skim milk can also be labeled "fat-free.")
  • Low: Indicates 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 terms that can be used include "low in," "contains small amount," "few," "low source," and "little."
  • Reduced: A product that has been nutritionally altered contains at least 25 percent less of a nutrient or of calories than the regular, or reference, product. A reduced claim cannot be placed on a product if its reference food already meets the requirement for a "low" nutritional claim. Other words for reduced include "reduced in," "less," "lower," "lower in," and "fewer."
  • Less: A food, altered or not, that contains 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than its reference food. For example, pretzels that have 25 percent less fat than potato chips could carry a "less" claim. "Fewer" is an acceptable synonym. Lean or extra lean: Describes the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats. Lean means less than 10 grams fat, 4-5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams. Extra lean means less than 5 grams fat, less than 2 grams saturated fat, and less than 95 mg cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams.
  • 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 grams of the food. Thus, if a food contains 2.5 grams fat per 50 grams, the claim must be "95 percent fat free."
  • Light: This descriptor can mean two things. First, that a nutritionally altered product contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the reference food. If the food derives 50 percent or more of its calories from fat, the reduction must be 50 percent of the fat. Second, it can mean that the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50 percent. In addition, the claim "light in sodium" may be used when the sodium content has been reduced by at least 50 percent.
Health Claims
Health claims on packaged foods are all approved and must be scientifically validated by the FDA. These types of claims describe a relationship between a specific nutrient or food substance and a disease or health-related condition. All of these claims must state the words "may" or "might" help prevent. Eleven claims are now approved for use on food labels:
  • Calcium and osteoporosis: Food must contain 20 percent or more of the daily value for calcium (200 mg) per serving, have a calcium content that equals or exceeds the food's phosphorus content, and contain a form of calcium that can be readily absorbed and used by the body.
  • Fat and cancer: Food must meet the nutrient content claim requirements for "low-fat" and, for fish and game meats, the requirements for "extra-lean."
  • Saturated fat and cholesterol and coronary heart disease (CHD): Food must meet the definitions for the nutrient content claim "low saturated fat," "low-cholesterol," and "low-fat," or, for fish and game meats, for "extra-lean." It may mention the link between reduced risk of CHD and lower-saturated fat and cholesterol intakes to lower blood cholesterol levels.
  • Fiber-containing grain products, fruits and vegetables, and cancer: Food must be or must contain a grain product, fruit, or vegetable and meet the nutrient content claim requirements for "low-fat," and, without fortification, be a "good source" of dietary fiber.
  • Fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber and risk of CHD: Food must be or must contain fruits, vegetables, and grain products. It also must meet the nutrient content claim requirements for "low-saturated fat," "low-cholesterol," and "low-fat" and contain, without fortification, at least 0.6 grams soluble fiber per serving. Many companies use health claims as marketing tools, but their purpose is actually to help consumers make informed decisions based on accepted scientific claims.
  • Sodium and high blood pressure: To carry this particular claim, a food must meet the nutrient content claim requirements for a "low-sodium" food.
  • Fruits and vegetables and cancer: Fruits and/or vegetables must meet the nutrient content claim requirements for "low-fat" and that, without fortification, for "good source" of at least one of the following: dietary fiber, vitamin A, or vitamin C. This claim relates diets low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables to the reduced risk for cancer.
  • Folic acid and neural tube defects: This claim can be used on dietary supplements that contain sufficient amounts of folate and on conventional foods that are naturally good sources of folate, as long as they do not provide more than 100 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, preformed vitamin A, or vitamin D. An example of this claim is "Healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman's risk of having a child with a brain or spinal cord defect."
  • Dietary sugar alcohols and dental caries (cavities): This claim basically applies to products, such as candy or gum, that contain the sugar alcohols xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, isomalt, lactitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, hydrogenated glucose syrups, or any combination of these. Besides the relationship of the food's ingredients to dental caries, the claim must also state that that "frequent between-meal consumption of foods high in sugars and starches promotes tooth decay."
  • Soluble fiber from certain foods, such as whole oats and psyllium seed husk, and heart disease: Package must also state that fiber needs to be part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and that the food must provide sufficient amounts of soluble fiber. The amount of soluble fiber in a serving of the food must be listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel.
  • Soy protein and risk of coronary heart disease: Food must have at least 6.25 grams of soy protein per reference amount and be low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat.

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Copyright © 2002 by Kimberly A. Tessmer. Excerpted from The Everything Nutrition Book: Boost Energy, Prevent Illness, and Live Longer with permission of its publisher, Adams Media Corporation.

To order this book visit Amazon.com.


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