In addition to the nutrient information on the Nutrition Facts label, it is also important to pay attention to manufacturers' claims that often are prominently displayed on the product.
To earn labeling as a fat-free product, a food product is required to have less than one-half of a gram of fat per serving.
To earn labeling as a reduced-fat product, a food product will have 25 percent less of the specified nutrient (in this case, fat) than a standard product. A reduced-fat chocolate chip cookie, for example, will contain 25 percent less fat than a regular chocolate chip cookie.
When a fat-free or reduced-fat product is formulated, sugar, salt and/or other ingredients often will, be increased to compensate for the flavor from the missing fat.
For example if you compare regular creamy peanut butter and a reduced-fat version of the same brand you are likely to find the fat was reduced in the reduced-fat version, however, the sodium and sugar were increased.
If meat, poultry or seafood is marketed as "lean," a 3-ounce serving must have less than 10 grams of fat (and not more than 4-1/2 grams of saturated fat) and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.
If labeled as a low-cholesterol product, a food product must contain less than 20 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 milligrams (or less) of saturated fat per serving.
If billed as a "low sodium" food product, a product must contain less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
If a food product (such as whole grain cereal) is marketed as "high fiber," a serving must contain 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
If a product is identified as a "good source of ," a serving must contain at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of the vitamin or nutrient.
If a product is marketed as "light," the product must have 1/3 fewer calories or 1/2 the fat content of a standard product.
If a product is labeled "healthy," it must qualify as low fat, low saturated fat, have less than 480 mg sodium, less than 95 milligrams cholesterol and at least 10 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamins A, C, iron, protein, calcium and fiber.
If a product is labeled "calorie-free," the product must contain fewer than 5 calories per serving.
If labeled "sugar-free," a product must contain less than 1/2 gram of sugar per serving.
In the United States, food product nutrient content and health claims are governed by the strict guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. You can find additional information on food products and the Nutrition Facts label at http://www.fda.gov.
Reading nutrition facts labels takes time, but doing so is important if you want to make healthy food choices.
Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.