Food Label Lingo

Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.

The new food label provides a wealth of nutrition information

In December 1992, the White House announced new food labeling laws. The new information enables consumers to make healthier food choices. Figures for the amount of saturated fat, cholesterol and fiber are included to reflect the latest understanding about the role that these substances play in the development of heart disease and cancer. The label lists nutrition information per serving in the context of a daily diet of 2000 calories.

New Food Label Details

In the past, many food packages contain labels that make all sorts of health claims regarding sodium, sugar, fat and cholesterol. Many of these claims can be misleading. For example, consider the label on the cookies which claims them to be “80% fat-free”, and therefore low in fat! When a label makes this claim, it means that the item contains 20% fat by weight. Actually, the cookies contain about 40% of their calories as fat. Furthermore, while 97% fat-free yogurt is only 3% fat by weight, 23 percent of its calories come from fat.

The new definitions for claims about fat are as follows: Fat-Free: the product must contain less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. Low Fat: less than 3 gms of fat per serving. Reduced Fat: the product must have no more than one-half the fat of a similar product made by the company.

Cholesterol-Free and No Cholesterol are popular label claims. These claims are made for products such as vegetable oil and peanut butter. Since cholesterol is found only in animal products, it is obvious that items like peanut butter would be cholesterol-free. The new legislation will permit the label “Cholesterol-Free” for items that contain less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving as well as no more than 2 grams of saturated fat. “Low in cholesterol” will mean no more than 20 mg of cholesterol and less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. A one-oz. bag of potato chips, prepared with vegetable oil, is cholesterol free but under the new laws cannot be labeled as such since it is a highfat food (contains 11 grams fat with 65% of the calories from fat) and contains 3 gms of saturated fat.

A label boasting light (lite) could mean any number of things, such as light in color, low in fat or salt. Previously, the FDA had no legal definition for the word light on food packaging, but the manufacturer may now choose to specify what light means. For instance, the label on Ruffles Light Potato Chips explains that they have one-third fewer calories. As for Extra Light Olive Oil (by Bertolli), each tablespoon provides the same amount of calories as their Classic Olive Oil. In this case, extra light means the oil has a milder taste. To do away with this confusion the new laws will allow Light to be used only on foods containing one-third fewer calories than a comparable product. For any other use of this term the company must specify if it refers to the taste or appearance (color).

The term sugarless or sugar-free indicates the product doesn’t contain table sugar (sucrose) or other sweeteners such as honey or molasses, yet the food may contain other sugars such as sorbitol which contain the same amount of calories as sucrose. A product with No Sugar Added may have sucrose and other sugars (fructose, glucose) just as long as they occur in the food naturally and have not been added~by the manufacturer. It has been proposed that Sugar-Free products should contain less than 0.5 mg of sugar per serving

The new rules for sodium are as follows: Sodium-Free and Salt-Free foods must have less than 5 mg of sodium per serving. For a Low Sodium claim on a product it must contain less than 140 mg per serving and Very Low Sodium must contain less than 35 milligrams per serving.

Note: in 2014 and 2015, The FDA issued proposed rules which would update the Nutrition Facts label. Below is an illustration of the old vs. new nutrition fact label:

Original Proposed
Current_Label_notitle_NFL_3.24.14 Proposed_Standard_NFL_2.13.14


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