You’ve likely noticed that food packaging is often covered with statements advertising things like “Low-fat!”, “All Natural!”, or “High-fiber!”. But what exactly does that mean? What defines “low”, “high”, “rich in…”, or “good source of…”, etc? How are these claims substantiated? Luckily, each have very specific definitions enforced by the FDA, and most are pretty straight-forward– but there are a couple tricky ones out there.
Reduced vs. Low
If you see two similar items on the shelf, with one labeled “reduced fat” and the other labeled “low fat”, is there a way of knowing which claim states that they have less fat than the other product? While these two adjectives sound similar, they actually have significantly different definitions. “Reduced” is fairly simple– it means that the food has at least 25% less fat (or calories, sugar, sodium, etc) than the “appropriate reference food”– basically the “classic” version of the product. However, the definition for “Low” depends on which nutrient it is referring to. The food must have less than 40 calories, less than 3g total fat, or less than 140mg sodium per serving. There is no “Low Sugar” definition approved by the FDA, so this label is not used. When it comes to descriptive labels like these, your best bet is to compare the food labels to help you make your choice.
Multi Grains are simple a combination of multiple types of grain– usually oat, buckwheat, cracked wheat, and millet. The presence of multiple grains doesn’t necessarily have any health benefits, though some may enjoy the flavor. They’re often confused with whole grains– grains that still contain the bran layer on the outside of the grain, which provides significant health benefits through the extra fiber’s blood sugar stabilizing effect and its ability to keep one full for a longer period of time. While some multi grains may also be whole grains, they “Multigrain” claim doesn’t necessarily provide any information on the health of a food.
Many assume that foods labelled “natural” are healthier, organic, or don’t contain certain artificial ingredients, pesticides, or GMOs. However, in the food labeling world, the claim “Natural” is essentially meaningless– the term has not been approved by the FDA and there are no official definition or regulation of its use. The FDA has not opposed to manufacturers using the claim, as long as there are not any synthetic ingredients in the particular product– but a lack of synthetic ingredients don’t necessarily make a food unhealthy. It could still contain pesticide-treated foods, high fructose corn syrup, GMOs, or simply have an exorbitant amount of fat or sugar. If you’d like more information about a particular food, it’s best to call the customer service phone number often found on food labels.
Here is the FDA’s chart of Nutrient Content Claims for those who would like to learn more: