Chef Tim Says...

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Dr. Tim Says....

10 Things You Need to Know About Reading Food Labels

There are so many different types of foods out there that make claims about being healthy.

The term "natural" is a good example of packaging that can be confusing. There is no regulation for the term "natural" and you could be purchasing a food that is made with 50% lard or is mostly sugar. The word natural doesn't mean that the food is healthy and you should assume that it is not.

One of my favorite examples is looking at some frozen vegetarian entrees. The packages are often labeled "Natural" or "Vegetarian" but they are many times full of fat, saturated fat and salt. They might be vegetarian, but they're not good for you!

Fortunately, the FDA has regulations for most terms that mandate what manufacturers can and cannot say about their products.

Here's a list of what some of the terms on food packages actually mean.

1. No, Non, Free and Un words

Calorie-free or No calorie: the product has to have less have less than 5 calories per serving.

No cholesterol, cholesterol-free: there has to be less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol in the food. Anything labeled cholesterol-free must also have less than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.

When the package says "no cholesterol," it must also tell you if it is like other foods of its type. For example, if the label says "Corn oil margarine, a no cholesterol food" it means that package of margarine has no cholesterol—but this is because all corn oil margarines don't have cholesterol in them.

Nonfat or fat-free
Nonfat or fat-free foods can have no more than 1⁄2 gram of fat per serving. No-fat, no added fat and zero fat mean exactly the same thing as fat-free.

Unsalted or no sodium added
Means there has not been any salt added to the food. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean that the food will actually be low in sodium. Some foods that are naturally high in sodium could technically be labeled no sodium added.

2. Low and Reduced

The word "low" has very specific meanings:

  • Low-calorie foods must have 40 calories or less per serving.
  • Low-cholesterol means 20 milligrams or less cholesterol in each serving.
  • Low-fat foods have 3 gram of fat or less per serving.
  • If a package claims that the food is low-saturated fat it has to have 1 gram or less saturated fat in each serving.
  • Low-sodium means 140 milligrams or less sodium per serving.
  • Very low-sodium is 35 milligrams or less sodium per serving.

The words "low source of," "few," "little" or "small amounts of" mean the same thing as low. For instance, low calorie = few calories = low source of calories.

As in Reduced fat, reduced calorie, reduced cholesterol or reduced sodium:

When you see the word "reduced" it means that the food has to have at least 25% less fat, calories, cholesterol or sodium than the regular food. For instance, reduced fat mayonnaise has to have 25% less fat than regular mayonnaise. This doesn't always mean that there will be fewer calories.

There are some cookies out there that say "low fat" but they actually have as many or more calories because the manufacturer put in more sugar, flour or other high calorie ingredient to help the flavor of the cookie. Check the label carefully.

If the label uses the word less or fewer it has the same meaning as reduced (less calories = reduced calories = fewer calories).

4. Diet

For a product to be labeled "Diet" it must either be low-calorie, reduced calorie or have a special use in a diet. Diabetic foods could be labeled "diet" for this reason.

5. Light or lite

A food labeled "lite" or "light" means that it has 1⁄3 less calories or 1⁄2 the amount of fat or 1⁄2 the sodium of the regular food.

Products that are light in color or texture may also be labeled light: for example, "light brown sugar". The manufacturer is required to tell you when they are using the word light to refer to color or texture.

6. Percent fat-free, % fat-free

If you see a label with the claim that the product is a certain percent fat-free (like "99% fat-free") it has to be a low-fat food. By definition this means that it must have 3 grams of fat or less per serving.

7. Healthy

For a food to be labeled "healthy" it must be a both a low-fat and low-saturated fat food. The product must also have no more cholesterol or sodium than recommended by the FDA. It does not mean the food is sugar-free.

There are some products with the word "Healthy" in their brand name. The rule is that if the brand name was already in use when the law was passed in 1989, the company can continue using the name. Be careful because this may not mean that the food labeled "healthy" might not be all that healthy. Turn the package over and check the Nutrition Facts.

8. Lean and Extra lean:

and extra lean is used to describe the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood or game.

Lean meat, poultry or seafood can not have more than 10 grams of fat in each 3 ounce serving. Lean foods must also have less than 4 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 gram serving.

Extra Lean
Extra lean
means that the meat must have less than 5 grams of fat in a 3 ounce serving. If a food is labeled extra lean, it can't have more than 2 grams of saturated fat and must contain less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol in each 100 gram serving.

9. More or Less or High or Good Source

means that a serving of food must contain a nutrient that is at least 10 percent of the Daily Value more than the reference food. This applies to foods whether they have been altered in some way or not.

For instance, this could be used when a food manufacturer might use a grain with more fiber in a cereal. If the cereal has 10% more fiber than the regular cereal the package could be labeled "More Fiber."

Foods labeled "fortified," "enriched," and "added," "extra," and "plus" are similar but in these cases the food must be one that has been altered. The similar example would be a cereal that has simply had fiber added to it to increase the fiber content instead of using a different grain.

Foods labeled "less" must contain at least 25 percent less of a particular nutrient or 25 percent less calories than a similar food. This applies to foods whether they have been altered or not.

An example would be pretzels that have 25 percent less fat than potato chips are allowed to use the "less" claim. "Fewer" means the same thing as "less."

If the word "high" is used on the label, the product must have at least 20 percent or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving.

For instance, if a container says "High Fiber" the food must have at least 5 grams of fiber in a serving.

Good source
The term "good source" on a label is similar to the term "high" but the food only has to have between 10 and 19 percent of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.

10. Whole grain

For a food to be labeled "whole grain" it must have over 51% of its content (by weight) be made from whole grains. The grains must contain all portions of the kernel. It must also have at least 16 grams of whole grain per portion.