Once just advertising hype, nutritional claims on food packaging have specific definitions according to the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The true meanings behind the approved terms are not always obvious to the shopper however, and deserve some explanation. There are 11 core terms that are allowed on packaging: free, low, lean, extra lean, high, good source, reduced, less, light, fewer, and more. I will define free, low, lean, extra lean and light as key to understanding those statements on your food packaging.
“Free” means a product is either absolutely free of the nutrient in question, or, the amount is considered “dietetically trivial” or “physiologically insignificant”. For example, “fat-free” is allowed on foods with less than .5 grams of fat per serving, because it is impossible to measure fat below a certain amount. “Free” can also be used in reference to fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and calories.
Foods that don’t contain a certain nutrient in the first place, must be labeled in a particular way. A fat-free claim on applesauce must read, “applesauce, a fat-free food” because apples don’t contain fat. You will often see vegetable oil, such as soy, canola or corn oil labeled, “Corn oil, a cholesterol-free food” because no foods of plant origin contain cholesterol.
“Low” on a label means a person can eat a large amount of the food without exceeding the daily value for the nutrient. Bearitos chili has a “low fat” claim, for example, and contains 2 grams of fat per serving. A person would have to eat a lot of chili to exceed the daily value of 65 grams of fat for a 2,000 calorie a day diet.
“Percent free” is another claim in this category. Products bearing “percent fat free” claims must meet the definition of “low” per 100 grams of food. For example, if a food contains 2.5 grams of fat per 50 grams of the food, the claim can be “95% fat free.”
“Lean” and “Extra lean” are used to describe the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats. “Lean” means the food has less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4 grams saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams. “Extra lean” means the food has less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving or per 100 grams.
“Light” or “lite” can mean one of two things. First, that a nutritionally altered product contains one-third fewer calories or half the fat of the food it is being compared to. If the food derives 50% or more of its calories from fat, the reduction must be 50 percent of the fat. Second, that the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50%. The term “light in sodium” is allowed if the food has at least 50 percent less sodium than a reference food.
Labels can be confusing and misleading if the terms are not clearly understood, and the definitions are not always intuitive.
For complete information on food labeling, visit the USDA website at nutrition.gov and find Food Labels.