Let’s face it, some of us sometimes pick our food like we pick our wine: depending on the front label. This makes sense since the colors, patterns, logos and images on foods and food products can be quite influential on our choices. On top of the fancy images and pretty colors that we may associate with foods that are ‘good for you’, if we see the words “Fat Free”, “Healthy” or “Light”, it’s really tempting to take that front label for face value and go for it!
Unfortunately, much like wines, the front label is not a true indicator of a food or food product’s quality. Not only can the phrases on labels (also known as health claims) be misleading, but their standards are often changing and have many synonyms.
Before your next shopping trip, consider the general descriptors below. Take a look at their definitions and synonyms to better understand what the health claim really means.
GENERAL LABEL DESCRIPTORS
|FREE||“Zero”, “No”, “Without”, “Trivial Source of”, “Negligible Source of”, “Dietarily Insignificant Source of”||A product contains no amount or a trivial amount of a nutrient.|
|LOW||“Little”, (“Few” for Calories), “Contains a Small Amount of”, “Low Source of”||Implies a food can be eaten frequently without exceeding the daily value for a nutrient.|
|REDUCED||“Lower” (“Fewer” for Calories)||Refers to a nutritionally modified product that contains 25% less of a nutrient or energy than a product it’s compared too.|
|LESS||“Lower” (“Fewer” for Calories)||Refers to foods, regardless if they are modified, that contain 25% less of a nutrient or energy than the reference foods.|
|LIGHT||N/A||A food comparison where a nutritionally altered food contains 1/3 less calories or when the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been lessened by 50%. Can describe texture or color.|
Though these definitions seem basic, it is important to note that these definitions aren’t absolute, especially when used to compare certain nutrients. This is explicitly defined by the FDA when considering: calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars. Here is a chart that demonstrates this…
|CALORIES||Anything less than 5 calories per serving.||40 calories or less per serving of a food; 120 calories or less per 100g of a meal.||25% less calories than a reference food or meal (which cannot already be “Low Calorie”).|
|TOTAL FAT||Anything less than 0.5g per serving.||A food that has 3g or less of total fat per serving.||A food that is at least 25% less fat than its reference food (which cannot already be “Low Fat”).|
|SATURATED FAT||Foods that have less than 0.5g saturated fat and less than 0.5g trans fatty acids per serving.||A food that has 1g or less saturated fat and 15% or less of calories from fat per serving.||Foods that have at least 25% less saturated fat than their respective reference foods (which cannot already be “Low Saturated Fat”).|
|CHOLESTEROL||Any food that has less than 2mg of cholesterol per serving.||A food that has 20mg or less of cholesterol per serving.||Foods that have at least 25% less cholesterol per serving than its reference food (which cannot already be “Low Cholesterol”).|
|SODIUM||Products with less than 5mg per serving. Same criteria for “Salt Free” products.||Foods with 140mg or less of sodium per serving.||Food that are at least 25% less in sodium than their respective reference food (which cannot already be “Low Sodium”).|
|SUGARS||Anything less than 0.5g of sugar per serving.||Cannot use this term for Sugar.||Foods that are at least 25% less in sugars when compared to their reference food.|
The premise behind this is to present the health claims as they are defined. More importantly, it is to emphasize that the presence of a health claim (or label descriptor) does not equate to a food or food product being better for your health. In other words, just because a food is “fat free” or “healthy” doesn’t mean consuming more of it is better for you.
For example, one popular peanut butter crunch snack bar may only be 100 calories with 11 vitamins and minerals – as displayed on a lovely green box. However, with only 1g of protein, 16g of carbohydrates (12g of which come from sugars and no fiber), it may not have the best nutritional value, let alone hold you over to your next meal, in comparison to other snack bars. Eating more of these bars won’t be healthful either since the nutrients (high sugar content and lower fat and protein values) will likely spike your blood sugar faster such that you may find yourself hungrier sooner than if you had a more balanced snack bar (such as one that has more protein and moderate fats).
There are many more phrases that are used to persuade us of a food’s healthfulness. If you are interested in taking a deeper look, take a look at the sites referenced below, or read more about other label descriptors.
“Agricultural Marketing Service – Understanding Organic Labeling.” Agricultural Marketing Service – Understanding Organic Labeling. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“Agricultural Marketing Service – USDA Establishes Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard.” Agricultural Marketing Service – USDA Establishes Naturally Raised Marketing Claim Standard. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“FSIS.” Frame Redirect. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“SlimFastâ¢ | Snack Bars | Peanut Butter Crunch Time.” SlimFast. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (10. Appendix B: Additional Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims). N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (9. Appendix A: Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims). N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
Labeling of Organic Products by USDA