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Glossary helps consumers understand terms on food labels

February 20, 2001

Glossary helps consumers understand terms on food labels



With more than 30,000 food items available in supermarkets, selecting the best versions of food products to accommodate your health needs can be difficult. Whether you're trying to eat less fat or sodium, more fiber or more of a particular nutrient like calcium, descriptions placed on food products - called nutrient content claims - can help you make appropriate choices.

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Nutrient content claims, such as "high in calcium" or "lite," are a form of advertising used to highlight the levels of key nutrients, cholesterol, fiber or calories in the products being labeled. They're usually placed on the front side of the package so they're visible to the shopper wanting to make quick comparisons among food products. The claim itself doesn't tell you how much of the nutrient is provided; that information is contained in the nutrition facts label found on the back or side of the package.

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The good news about nutrient claims found on food labels is that they're regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The descriptions mean the same thing for all food products.

Following is a mini-glossary of several common nutrient content claims.

Keep in mind, however, these claims are optional. Food manufacturers decide whether to place them on products, so some foods that meet the criteria may not carry the claims.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Free: This term means the product does not contain, or contains only a negligible amount, of the nutrient preceding the word "free." Fat-free salad dressings, for example, contain less than .5 gram of fat per serving.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Low: Products labeled "low" cannot contain more than a set amount of the nutrient in question. These levels have been set low enough to allow frequent intake without concern about going over dietary recommendations. More specifically:

  • Low sodium - no more than 140 milligrams per standardized serving size
  • Very low sodium - no more than 35 milligrams per standardized serving size
  • Low calorie - no more than 40 calories per standardized serving size
  • Low fat - no more than 3 grams per standardized serving size
  • Low saturated fat - no more than 1 gram per standardized serving size
  • Low cholesterol - no more than 20 milligrams per standardized serving size
HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Reduced or less: When you see either of these terms on a label, it means the product contains at least 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than the regular product.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Light or lite: This term means the product has 1/3 fewer calories per serving than a comparable product, or 50 percent less fat or sodium per serving than a comparable product.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Good source: The product provides between 10 percent and 19 percent of the daily value of the nutrient being described.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> High, rich in or excellent source: The product provides 20 percent or more of the daily value for a nutrient.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> More: If a product contains at least 10 percent more of the daily value for a nutrient per serving than a comparison food, it can use the term "more" on its label; for example, "Now with more calcium!"

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Lean: This term is used to label meat, poultry, seafood and game meats that contain less than 10 grams fat, less than 4 grams saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol per standardized serving.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Extra lean: Meat, poultry, seafood and game meats using this label contain less than 5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat and 95 milligrams cholesterol per standardized serving.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* "> Healthy: When used on a product claim, it means the product is low in fat and saturated fat, contains no more than 60 milligrams of cholesterol and 480 milligrams of sodium per serving, and provides at least 10 percent of the daily value for vitamins A and C, protein, calcium, iron and fiber.

People look at food labels for different reasons. Whatever the reason, if you would like to know how to use this information more easily and effectively, send a self-addressed, stamped (34-cent) business-sized envelope to Maryland Cooperative Extension - Washington County Office, 7303 Sharpsburg Pike, Boonsboro, Md. 21713. Mark the envelope, "Labels."

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County. Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

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