Understanding Nutrient Claims on Food Labels

Ever fee confused by all the nutritional claims on labels? Yeah me too and I went to school for this! You feel like you need a cheat sheet just walking down the aisles of the grocery store. Low carb, reduced fat, no sugar, light sodium.  What does it all mean?

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Below I go over a generalization of the different types of claims and what they mean. I will also tell you what you really should be paying attention to on food labels.

First off always remember the point of the label is to make you pick the item off the shelf. It is marketing. Its intent is not to help you eat healthier. It is to make a company money.

According to the US FDA there are 3 different type of nutrient claims on labels; health claims, nutrient content claims and structure/ function claims.

  • Health claims are when they claim a food affects a disease or health condition. For example: “Soluble fiber from oatmeal along with a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease”.
  • Nutrient content claims describes the content amount of a certain nutrient.  For example: “low sugar”, “fat free”, or “reduced calorie”.
  • Structure/function claims are the role a nutrient effects the body. For example, “Calcium builds strong bones.” And I will argue that there is a fourth category: Every other claim not covered under the FDA’s umbrella.

Here is my feeling on the claims on label: ignore them. Most of the time they are BS anyways.  Look at the label. See if it meets your needs.  Whenever possible choose whole foods.  It can help to know how much nutrients you personally need. (Everyone is different with different needs. It depends on your body, activity level, goals, age, lifestyle. And how often you like to eat.  Someone who eats 3 times a day will need to eat more per meal then someone who prefers 6. I wish I could tell you exactly what you need to eat, but without know more about you I can’t. And I don’t like just throwing blanket recommendations out there.)

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This low-calorie low-sugar ice cream contains sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols still effect blood sugar and can cause GI upset.

If you are going to get the lower carb cookies, bread, whatever.  Compare it to the original. And ask yourself these questions:

  •  Is it even worth it? Will you feel satisfied after eating it?  Commonly after eating a lower, reduced version will still be craving the original and may even over eat later because we weren’t originally satisfied. Eating 4 servings of low fat ice cream is not better then eating just 1 serving of the full fat one!
  • How much calories/carbs are you actually saving? Is it even worth it? The “lower carb/fat” versions commonly have more calories.
  • How did they make it lower? It is now higher in another macro (commonly fat or sugar!)? When they take fat away they usually have to add sugar (or a sugar substitute in) and they remove sugar it is commonly replaced with fat. Did they add something to it in place of the lower nutrient? Like sugar alcohols in low carb, which can cause GI issues and still effect blood sugar levels.
  • What is the sodium content? When they remove fat or a carb, sometime to help with the lack of taste they will add in more sodium.
  • How much does it cost? Remember this is marketing. They want your money. Often the reduced version will cost more.

If you are ok with all those things? Well, then go for it.  Otherwise, set it back on the shelf and grab the original.

Below is a chart of what the US FDA has to say amount label claims.  These are just an example of SOME of the nutrient content claims you may see on labels.

 

Free, No, Zero, Without, Trivial source of, Negligible source of Low, Little, few contains small amount of, low source of Reduced, Less, Lower, fewer, modified Other
Calories Less than 5 cal per serving 40 cal or less for small serving,s 120 cal or less for meals. At least 25% less calories then original Light/Lite: must meet low calorie and low fat guidelines.
Total Fat Less than 5 g per serving 3 g or less and 30%or less of calories from fat 25% less fat “_% fat free” if food meets requirements for “low fat”. “100% fat free” must be “fat free”.
Saturated Fat Less than 0.5 g sat fat
Less than0 .5 g trans fat
Small servings: 1 g or less and 15% or less of calories come from sat. fat.
Meals: 1 g or less per 100 g food and less than 10% calories come from sat. fat.
25% less sat. fat then original reference food.
Cholesterol Less than 2 mg Small servings: 20 g or less. Meals 20 g or less per 100 g At least 25% less cholesterol
Sodium Less than 5 mg (this applies to salt free too) 140 mg or less for small servings and 140mg or less per 100 grams for meals. Very Low Sodium= 35 mg or less, 50 mg or less for meals 25% less sodium then original food. Light: if food is low calorie and low fat and sodium is reduced by 50% “Light in Sodium”: sodium is reduced by 50% “No salt added” and “unsalted”: may not be sodium free. Lightly salted” 50% less sodium then normally added, not “Low sodium”
Sugar Less than 0.5 g Not Defined At leaste 25% less sugar No added Sugar” and “without added sugar”: if no sugar or sugar added ingredient is added during processing.  Does not refer to sugar alcohols.

 

It doesn’t really help with the confusion does it?  Two things to take note of. One, notice Low sugar is not defined.  Meaning a there are no hard rules a manufacture must follow when labeling a food low sugar. Also, notice there is no rules for low carb? It’s like the wild west of food labels out there.  And you need to know what to look for and how to look past all the marketing.

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This low-fat cottage cheese contains 440 mg of sodium in just 1/2 cup. That almost 1/5 the amount you should get in an entire day. 

What to look for when reading the label:

  • Ignore the health claims.
  • Check the serving size. Is that a serving size you would eat? Or would you eat more than that?
  • Look at the total calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein and sodium.  Do they meet your particular needs?
  • When looking at the carbohydrates, make sure to look at the fiber amount vs sugar amount.  (more fiber, less sugar the better)
  • When looking at the fat content pay attention if there is any trans-fat.  Fat on a whole is not bad! If the product is high in fat, is it healthy fat (check out this article on Fat).
  • Don’t forget to look at the sodium content. 75% of our salt consumption comes from packaged foods, and not the salt shaker. Average healthy adult needs no more than 2,300 mg per day.

In the end, ignore the claims.  They are just marketing.  Read the ingredients and label, and see if the items fit your personal needs. If the item is reduced/lower/less in away way check that it does not contain more of something else, like fat, sugar or sodium, to make up for the missing taste.

If you do opt for the lower/reduced ice cream, you will not be saving yourself anything if you end up eating 3 servings instead of just 1 of the original full fat/sugar version.

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