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Be Smart - Understanding Nutrient Claims

Written by Patty Poon, M.Sc.
last updated: October 2005

nutrient claims food labelMany of us are confused by the numerous claims found on packaged food products. How low is the sodium content in a "Low Sodium" chicken stock? What does "Light" Soya Sauce, "Light" cream cheese or "Light" peanut butter really mean?

Nutrient Claims - the Basics

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. Synonyms for "free" include "without," "no" and "zero."

Low: This term can be used to describe foods that can be eaten frequently without exceeding dietary guidelines for one or more of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories. Synonyms for low include "little," "few," and "low source of."

Light: This descriptor can mean two things:

  1. a nutritionally altered product contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the reference food.
  2. the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50 percent.

The term "light" still can be used to describe such properties as texture and color, as long as the label explains the intent. For example, "light brown sugar".

Claims

Requirements

Calories
Free Fewer than 5 kcal per serving
Low 40 kcal or less per serving, or per 50 g of the food
Reduced/Less At least 25% fewer kcal per serving than reference food
Light/Lite If 50% or more of the kcal are from fat; fat must be reduced by at least 50% per reference amount. If less than 50% of kcal are from fat, fat must be reduced at least 50% or kcal reduced at least 1/3 per reference amount.
Fat
Free Less than 0.5g of fat per serving
Low 3g or less per serving, or per 50g of the food
Reduced/Less At least 25% less per serving than reference food
Light/Lite If 50% or more of the calories are from fat, fat must be reduced by at least 50% per reference amount. If less than 50% of calories are from fat, fat must be reduced at least 50% or calories reduced at least 1/3 per reference amount.
Sugar
Free Less than 0.5g per serving.
Reduced At least 25% less sugar per serving than reference food
No added sugar, without added sugar, or no sugar added No sugars are added during processing or packing
Sodium
Free Less than 5mg per serving
Low 140mg or less per serving, or per 50g of the food
Very Low 35mg or less per serving, or per 50g of the food
Reduced/Less At least 25% less per serving than reference food
Light If food is "Low Calorie" and "Low Fat" and sodium is reduced by at least 50%
Fiber
High 5g or more per serving. (Foods with high fiber claims must meet the definition for low fat, or the level of total fat must appear next to the high fiber claim.)
Good source of 2.5g to 4.9g per serving
More/added At least 2.5g more per serving than the reference food

Other Nutrient Claims

"Healthy" Products using the term "healthy" in the product name or as a claim on the label must contain, per serving, no more than 3g of fat, 1g of saturated fat, 480mg of sodium, or 60mg of cholesterol. They must also supply at least 10% of the daily value for at least one of six nutrients: vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, protein, and fiber. Raw meat, poultry, and fish can be labeled "healthy" if they contain, per serving, no more than 5g of fat, 2g of saturated fat, and 95mg of cholesterol.
"High", "Rich in" or "Excellent Source" 20% or more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient per serving
"Good Source Of", "More", or "Added" The food provides 10% more of the Daily Value for a given nutrient than the comparison food. The 10 percent of Daily Value also applies to "fortified," "enriched" and "added" claims, but in those cases, the food must be altered.

Nutrient Claims - the Bottom Line: Remember, these claims are meant to serve as guidelines only. It may seem confusing at times but with some practice, you will be able to quickly scan a food label and learn how a particular food product meets your nutritional needs.

When comparing products, focus on those nutrients that are important to you.

  • If you are concerned about your weight, you should compare products based on BOTH calories and fat.
  • If you have heart disease or high blood pressure, you should focus on the amount of total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium. Choose products containing less than 20% Daily Values for fat, cholesterol and sodium.
  • If you have diabetes, you should pay attention to the amount of carbohyrdate, sugar added as well as fiber.

All nutrient claims must meet FDA's specifications. For a complete list of nutrient claims, check FDA's Labeling Guide.

Further Reading:


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