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So, while the labels placed on foods should be helping us to make better choices, sometimes they offer contradictory statements that are open to interpretation.

I live in the Washington DC area where we have a number of grocery stores that feature health foods. Yes Organic Market, My Organic Market, the Tacoma Park-Silver Spring Coop, and of course Whole Foods all carry a number of whole foods and supplements to support health – which is not to say that every single thing that is sold in these stores is healthy. And it’s often in these stores where label reading is somewhat more complicated.



As consumers we sometimes are fooled into thinking that foods that sport labels saying they are “natural,” and “organic” are automatically healthy.  But actually, under Food and Drug Association (FDA) policy, food manufacturers can use the label “natural” when the product has no synthetic and artificial ingredients. The organic label requires that the product meet the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Organic Program. Nothing in the FDA guidelines or the USDA’s standards test for the health supporting qualities of the product in question.



Defined by regulation, the Label “healthy” means that the product must meet certain criteria, which limits amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium that the product can contain. Additionally, the food must contain minimum amounts of vitamins, minerals or other beneficial nutrients.

So the next time your mouth starts watering when you see some kind of frozen confection that is “organic” and “all natural,” don’t assume you’re making a healthy choice. Remember to read past those claims that suck you in! Read the label and especially take note of the sugars and fats you might be taking in (in the name of virtuous eating)!

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When you walk through the aisles of any supermarket you’ll see a lot of different packages carrying messages to tell you how wonderfully nutritious the food is inside of them. One of the most popular of these is the “sugar free” label. I am sure you’ve seen it on countless occasions – especially on foods you know are not all that great for you. So what do these labels actually mean?

First off – these kinds of labels are called nutrient content claims that either directly describe or imply how much nutrient content is in a food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates what these labels can or cannot say. And according to the rules there is a bit of wiggle room – so when something says it’s sugar free – what it actually means is that

It’s important to know that when something says “transfat free” it is not actually required to have 0 trans fats; rather, the amount of trans fats it contains is such a small percentage that the FDA deems it “free.” For the common adjectives that you will see on labels see how they are defined by the FDA below:

Free “Free” can also by indicated in other words such as: “Zero,”  “No,”/ “Without,” “Trivial,” “Source of,” “Negligible Source of,” “Dietarily Insignificant Source of.”Key to this labeling is that the food or meal does not have to be free of a substance (such as calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium) if it contains trivial amounts (usually .05 g per labeled serving). This may also come with a disclosure statement – required as part of the claim – with phrasing like: “See nutrition information for fat content” that exceed the prescribed levels). So:Calorie Free = Less than 5 calories labeled serving.

Fat free (total fat) = Less than 0.5 g per labeled serving.

Saturated fat-free = Less than 0.5g saturated fat/trans fatty acids per labeled serving.

Cholesterol free: = Less than 2 mg of cholesterol per labeled serving, and could include “trivial or no amount of Cholesterol.”

Sodium free: = Less than 5 mg of sodium per labeled serving – foods labeled “salt free” must meet criterion for “sodium free.”

Sugar free = Less than 0.5 g sugars per labeled serving.

Low Otherwise stated as “Low,” “Little,” “Few” (for Calories), “Contains a Small Amount of,” “Low Source of,” and refers to a meal or dish that contains varying amounts of calories or substances – see the definitions below:Low Calorie = meals that contain 120 calories or less per 100 g.Note: a “Light” or “Lite” meal or main meets definition for a “Low Calorie” or “Low Fat” meal – and the labeling will reflect which definition is met by the contents of the meal. And for dietary supplements, Calorie claims can only be made when the reference product is greater than 40 calories per serving.

Low Fat = Meals and main dishes that contain 3 g of fat or less per 100 g and not more than 30% of calories from fat.

Low Saturated Fat = Meals/main dishes should contain 1 g saturated fat or less per 100 g and less than 10% of calories from saturated fat.

Low Cholesterol = Meals/main dishes should have 20 mg or less cholesterol per 100 g.

Low Sodium = Meals and main dishes that have 40 mg or less sodium per 100g; and “Very Low Sodium” should have 35 mg or less sodium per 100g

Low Sugar = Not Defined. May not be used.

Reduced/ Less “Reduced,” “Less,” “Lower,” “Fewer” (for Calories), and “Modified” may be used to indicate Low or reduced. Definitions for meals and main dishes are same as for individual foods on a per 100 g basis.Reduced Calories = At least 25% fewer calories per 100 g.  Reference food may not be “Low Calorie”Uses term “Fewer” rather than “Less”

Reduced Fat = At least 25% less fat per 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Fat”

Reduced Saturated Fat = At least 25% less saturated fat per 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Saturated Fat”

Reduced Cholesterol = At least 25% less cholesterol 100g; Reference food may not be “Low Cholesterol”

Reduced Sodium = At least 25% less sodium 100g. Reference food may not be “Low Sodium”

Reduced Sugar = At least 25% less sugars per 100g. May not use this claim on dietary supplements of vitamins and minerals


So, based on these above definitions some popular nutrient claims mean something slightly different than you might think… Informed choices are the best choices. Enjoy!

A lot of foods have confusing labels pasted all over the front of them. Some food labels boast a certain food is low-calorie, heart healthy or a good source of fiber while others may brag that calcium is important to bone health. Excluding for a moment what’s listed on the back in terms of ingredients, nutrients etc., the front of many grocery store-bought packages boast nutrient content claims, health claims and structure/function (S/F) claims – what do these claims tell us you ask?

A nutrient content claim is some kind of labeling on a food product that describes either in a direct or implied manner how much nutrient content is in a food; a commonly seen example is the use of the term “low fat.”

In contrast, a health claim is a claim on the food or dietary supplement label that makes a direct or implied correlation between use of that food or supplement and a disease or health condition. Such labels could include symbols, or illustrations or recommendations from a third-party. So when you read a big banner on the front of a Cheerios box that says “you can lower your cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks” you are perusing a health claim.

Structure/function (S/F) claims also appear – on foods and dietary supplements; they differ in that they point to the way that the food or supplement (or its ingredients) affects a particular function of the body without pointing to any particular disease. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “S/F claims must be truthful and not misleading and are not pre-reviewed or authorized by FDA. [21 U.S.C. 343(r)(6); 21 CFR 101.93].” An example that the FDA gives is “calcium builds strong bones.”

In the coming weeks and months I will be blogging a bit more specifically about what different labels mean, so you can tune in as time goes by… You can also spend hours reading through the FDA Website for more information on how all these claims are regulated:

Health & Nutrition Counseling

An integrative approach to health and nutrition which includes Earth consciousness.


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