Hiding Behind the Food Label

by Charles Platkin, PhD

You would think that with all the nutrient information on packages, it would be a breeze to figure out which foods will help you stay trim. But buyer beware! Even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of these terms (known as “nutrient content claims”), food labeling can still be misleading, even if technically accurate.

You don’t need to be a lawyer or nutritionist to unravel the intricacies of food labeling law. If you’re watching your weight, here’s what you need to know:


FAT FREE: A fat-free food must have less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. The key words here are “per serving” — these claims are based on a standardized serving size that is often unrealistic. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Spray is a good example of how this can be misleading — even though the label boasts “zero” calories and fat, that’s just for a few sprays. If you were to use 25 sprays, it’s actually 20 calories and about 2 grams of fat — and while this is still low, it’s not “zero.”

Take a look at another popular product — Pam Cooking Spray (one of my long-time favorites). Although Pam has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, technically qualifying it for the “fat free” claim, the FDA thought such an assertion on a product that is essentially 100% fat (that’s right — it’s full of fat) would be misleading. The compromise was to allow Pam (and these types of products) to put the words “for fat-free cooking” on the label.

Another problem is that fat-free versions often have close to the same amount of calories as the “full fat” versions. For example, 9 of Nabisco Snackwell’s Fat-Free Wheat Crackers have 108 calories, 0 grams of fat, and 21.6 grams of carbohydrates, whereas 9 Nabisco Premium Saltine Crackers have 108 calories, 2.7 grams of fat, and 18 grams of carbohydrates.

LOW FAT: To qualify as low-fat, a food must contain 3 grams of fat or less per serving. (Notice those words — “per serving.”) Again, just because something is low in fat doesn’t mean it’s healthy or low in calories.

For instance, Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie Low-Fat Frozen Yogurt contains 190 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, and 36 grams of carbohydrates per serving. On the other hand, plain old Breyers Chocolate Ice Cream has 160 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 18 grams of carbohydrates per serving.

REDUCED OR LESS FAT: To qualify as a reduced-fat food, the product must have at least 25 percent less fat per serving than the original version.

No one would argue that less fat is better, but how much better? Take peanut butter for example. As implied by the name, Jif Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter contains 4 fewer grams of fat than regular — except it’s the heart-healthy fat that’s missing. And both versions contain the same amount of calories — about 190 per serving — and the same amount of artery-clogging saturated fat. Why skimp on the good fat for additional chemicals and sugar? Plus, when the label says reduced fat, you might assume you can eat larger servings, without realizing the additional calories you’re consuming.

At 140 calories and 6 grams of fat per ounce, Sun Chips French Onion flavor is labeled correctly as 30% less fat than regular potato chips. While technically true, this snack item is still about 38.5% fat and does NOT meet the criteria for a low-fat food. If you regularly snack on chips, then Sun Chips might make a better choice — but they are certainly not as virtuous as the label suggests. So, if you see a “reduced-fat” claim, be wary — yes, it’s reduced, but the question is, from what?


SUGAR FREE: Sugar free means less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Again, this doesn’t mean that it is healthy or great for weight loss.

Take a look at Murray Sugar Free Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies, which have 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 19 grams of carbohydrates per serving. Compare this to a serving of the regular Famous Amos Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies at 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 19 grams of carbohydrates.

NO ADDED SUGAR: “No added sugars” and “without added sugars” claims are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient (for example, fruit juices, applesauce, or dried fruit) is added during processing or packing. Pay attention though, because it can be stated on the package even if the food is not “low calorie” or “reduced calorie.”

Fruit juice with no added sugar is a good example. It’s still fairly high in calories and already high in other fruit sugars. Ocean Spray No Added Sugar Cranberry Juice has 100 calories and 25 grams of carbohydrate per serving — only slightly less than the Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail, which has 109 calories and 27 grams of carbohydrate per serving.


LIGHT: “Light” or “lite” products are also getting a lot of shelf space these days — but “light” is not synonymous with healthy. A “light” food is one that has 1/3 fewer calories OR half the fat of a previous version of the food.

A great example is the Milky Way Lite. Talk about technicalities:

    • Milky Way: 270 calories and 10 grams of fat
    • Milky Way Lite: 170 calories and 5 grams of fat

        Here’s the catch — a regular Milky Way weighs 58 grams, while a Milky Way Lite weighs only 44.5 grams. So basically, you could chop off 13.5 grams of your usual Milky Way, with similar nutritional results.

        The term “light” can be confusing because it can also refer to the color or texture of the product, such as light olive oil. Its fat content is the same as any other olive oil — nearly 14 grams per tablespoon.

        Nutrition experts say that one of the most important things to be aware of is what the FDA refers to as “reference amounts” or “serving sizes.” “These ‘serving sizes’ are the amounts that all nutrient information is based upon, and thus the claims that the manufacturer is allowed to make,” says Nutritionist Leah Nemerson, R.D.

        So, if you’re using much more than the serving size on the label, you might want to shop elsewhere for your “calorie bargains.”

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