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What Your Food Labels Really Mean

"Lean" or "extra lean"? "Low" or "light"? When you're comparing foods with different "nutrient content claims," as these adjectives are called, it can seem as difficult as comparing apples to oranges. Luckily, the FDA regulates claims like these on food packaging, so "low-fat" means the same thing, whether you're buying apple pie or orange sorbet.

The question is, how do you figure out what "low fat" means in the first place? Use this handy reference guide to help you make sense of all those terms.

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  • Low (e.g., "low fat," "low sodium," "low calorie")

    This term means your food contains little (approximately 5 percent Daily Value) fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, or calories, so it can be eaten frequently without exceeding the percent Daily Value .

  • Reduced (e.g., "reduced fat," "reduced sodium")

    This term refers to a food with at least 25 percent fewer calories, and 25 percent less fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium than the food it's being compared with (i.e., a "reference food").

  • Less or Fewer

    If your food has "less" fat or sodium, or "fewer" calories than the food it's being compared to, that means there's a difference of at least 25 percent.

  • Light

    This refers to a food that has one-third fewer calories, 50 percent less fat, or 50 percent less sodium than the traditional version. (Note: "Light" can of course also be used to describe texture or color, such as "light and fluffy" frosting or "light brown sugar.")

  • Free

    If your food is "free" of a component, that means it contains 0 percent, or so little that it won't likely affect the body. The term is used with fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars and calories.

  • High

    This means your food contains at least 20 percent Daily Value of a particular nutrient.

  • Good Source

    If a food is a "good source" of a particular nutrient, then it contains 10 to 19 percent Daily Value of that nutrient.

  • More, Fortified, or Added

    Packaged foods using this terminology contain at least 10 percent more of the Daily Value of a nutrient than is found in the reference food.

  • Healthy

    Foods labeled "healthy" contain beneficial levels of several components. It must fall within certain parameters regarding fats, cholesterol, sodium, vitamins and minerals. Amounts vary depending on the type of food and are determined by the FDA.

  • Lean

    "Lean" refers to seafood, poultry, or meat with less than 10 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat and 95 mg cholesterol per 3.5-ounce serving.

  • Extra Lean

    Seafood, poultry, or meat may be labeled "extra lean" if they contain less than 5 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat and 95 mg cholesterol per 3.5-ounce serving.

Note: Daily Value is the amount recommended that you consume per day. For nutrients you should limit, stay below 100 percent Daily Value per day. For other nutrients, strive for at least 100 percent Daily Value each day.

Still not sure how a food fits into your diet? Check out the Nutrition Facts label. When the food label was revamped in 1994 by the FDA and the USDA, it was turned into an easy-to-read chart that displays the amount of calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and some select vitamins and minerals per serving. As of January 1, 2006, this chart is required to list the amount of trans fats, which have been linked to heart disease.

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