It’s hard to find a label that doesn’t make some sort of claim hoping to make it into your shopping cart. But when you see the words “free” or “light” on the label, can you believe them?
According to the FDA, you can. Manufacturers are required to provide scientific evidence before they are allowed to make claims on labels. There are twelve words that are strictly regulated: free, low, reduced, less, lean, extra lean, light/lite, more, fewer, high, good source, and healthy.
A label claiming to be calorie free must contain less than five calories per serving. Sodium-free, sugar-free, and fat-free foods must contain less than .5 grams per serving. “Cholesterol free” means the product has less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol per serving, and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving.
“Low calorie” means the product has 40 calories or less per serving. “Low fat” products must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving. “Low-cholesterol” means less than 20 milligrams per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving. “Low sodium” must have 140 milligrams or less per serving. “Very low sodium” means 35 milligrams or less.
A product labeled “reduced” must have at least 25 percent less of the nutrient than the food it is referencing. For example, reduced-fat salad dressing must have 25 percent less fat than regular salad dressing. The synonym is “fewer.”
A product labeled “less” must have 25 percent less of a nutrient than the food it is referencing. For example, chicken broth labeled as having less sodium must have 25 percent less sodium than regular chicken broth.
Lean and Extra-Lean
“Lean” foods must have 10 grams or less of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams or less of cholesterol per serving or per 100 grams. “Extra-lean” foods can have no more than 5 grams total fat, 2 grams saturated fat, and 95 milligrams cholesterol.
Light or Lite
Products labeled “light” must have one-third fewer calories per serving than the food it is referencing, or 50 percent less fat than the reference food. If the product gets over 50 percent of its calories from fat, it must reduce the fat by another 50 percent to carry the “light” descriptor. Light sodium means the product has 50 percent less sodium per serving.
Products labeled “more” must contain at least 10 percent of the daily reference value of the nutrient in question. Synonyms include “fortified,” “enriched,” “added,” “extra,” and “plus.”
Claims of “fewer” are the same as those for reduced. The product must contain at least 25 percent less of the nutrient than the referenced product.
Products with “high” on the label must contain 20 percent of the daily reference value or more of vitamins, minerals, fiber, or protein.
If a product claims to be a “good source” of something, it must have 10–19 percent of the daily value of that vitamin, mineral, fiber, or protein.
Perhaps the most crucial word of all, the “healthy” claim, has several criteria. It must provide at least 10 percent of the daily value of vitamins, minerals, fiber, or protein. If it is a meal product (meant to serve as an entire meal, such as a frozen dinner), it must contain 10 percent of the daily value of at least two of those nutrients. Sodium may not exceed 360 milligrams, or 480 milligrams for a meal product. The product must also follow the criteria for low–fat, low–saturated fat, and low cholesterol.