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Label Fraud - How to decipher food marketing claims.

If you're reading nutrition labels to help you choose healthier foods, great! But do you know there are rules for what appears on the front of a package?

Some words and phrases are used to give a buyer better information on the benefits of a product. Those words are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Unfortunately, there are many more that don't mean crap. They're marketing words used to mislead and confuse shoppers. These are the words to pay attention to and the ones that are empty promises.

Here are some of the regulated words.

Free, Low, Light or Lite, Reduced, Lean, Extra Lean, Percent Fat-Free, High, Good Source, Healthy, Organic, Less, Fewer and More.

Useful Words

"Free" is defined by the FDA as an amount so small it probably won't have an effect on the body. It doesn't guarantee the product is "100% Free." "Fat-free" items don't really have to be fat-free; they simply must have less than half a gram of fat per serving.

USDA Acceptable Synonyms for the term "Free."

Trivial source of
Negligible source of
Dietarily insignificant source of

"Low" claims can be made when talking about total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories. "Low-fat" must contain 3 grams of fat or less per serving. "Low-cholesterol" means less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol, and "Low-sodium" means less than 140 milligrams of sodium. (Sodium can claim to be "Very Low" when there are 35 milligrams or less per serving.)

USDA Acceptable Synonyms for the term "Low."

Contains a small amount of
Low source of

"Lite" or "Light" is flexible. It can refer to fat, sodium or total calories. To qualify, a product must have one of the following—half the fat, half the sodium or one-third the calories of the original.

Here's where it gets tricky. Some foods can call themselves "Light," and they are referring to the food color or texture. For example, you might see "Light Brown Sugar." That doesn't mean the brown sugar has fewer calories; it just means it's not as dark! If you're looking for a product that might be healthier, choose packages that have the label "LITE," not "LIGHT."

"Reduced" can refer to fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium. "Reduced" products must have 25 percent less than their regular versions. Just because a label says, "Reduced" does not mean it's a healthy option.

"Lean" and "Extra Lean" are used to describe the fat content of meat. If a food is "Lean," it has less than 10 grams of fat per serving, while "Extra Lean" has less than 5 grams of fat per serving.

"High" and "Good Source" are often used on foods promoting possibly healthy ingredients. To qualify as a "Good Source," the product must contain 10 to 19 percent of the daily value of the nutrient, while foods that have 20% or more can use the term "High."

"Healthy" is one of the most all-encompassing titles and can only be used on labels for foods that meet very specific criteria. Less than 3 grams of fat, less than 1 gram of saturated fat, less than 480 mg of sodium or less than 60 mg of cholesterol per serving. Oh, and it must have at least 10% of one of six specified nutrients (Vitamins A, C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber).

Organic products fall into three categories. "Made With Organic" means the product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. "Organic" must be 95% or greater organically produced ingredients. "100% Organic" is the only one of the three that must be made with nothing but organic ingredients.

Marketing Words

"Less," "Fewer," and "More" are all comparison claims. They can imply that a food has less fat, fewer calories or more vitamins. Unfortunately, who or even what they can compare themselves to is vague. A bag of pretzels can advertise as having less fat (in large print) but then in tiny print be comparing itself to a bag of potato chips. Don't rely on the terms "Less," "Fewer," or "More" because they can't be trusted to guide you to healthier choices.

"Percent Fat-Free" is another misleading term. You would expect a label that says "91% Fat-Free" would be relatively good for you, right? Wrong. Meat products are frequently labeled that way, but here's the ugly truth. A 4 ounce serving of hamburger labeled "91% fat-free" has 199 calories and 11 grams of fat. That means 50% of the calories from that food are from FAT!

"Wholesome" is a word that conjures up images of fresh ingredients carefully prepared. The reality is that the US Government states that a wholesome food is "fit for human consumption." Of course, for any food to be sold in the United States, it has to be "fit for human consumption." Practically speaking, "Wholesome" on the label means...practically nothing.

"All Natural" is an easy one to confuse with "organic." The USDA defines "all natural" as a food that didn't have any substances added at the processing level. "All Natural" appears on the labels of many meat packages, but it doesn't tell you anything about how a food was raised, what medications were used or what the animal was fed.

Juicy Details

Enjoying a glass of juice in the morning? If the label says, "100 Percent Juice," then 100 percent of the sugars are from pure fruit or vegetable juice.

"Fruit and Juice Flavored Beverages" are typically the bait and switch companies. That drink with cranberries on the label can be made almost entirely out of less expensive juices like apple juice and some creative food dyes.

"Juice Blend" is any percentage of pure juice or juice from concentrate.

"Juice Beverage," "Juice Cocktail," and "Juice Drink" might as well say "sugar water." Those terms apply to any beverage (carbonated or not) that has some fruit or vegetable juice mixed in. To give you an idea of how much juice is added to these drinks, the Federal guidelines suggest "2 to 3 percent."

Finally, be cautious of products that use regulated terms as part of the brand name. Healthy Choice Dinners, Healthy Valley Granola and Lean Cuisine are, for the most part, healthier options when you're shopping. However, because the regulated terms "Healthy" and "Lean" are part of their brand names, not a product claim, those foods don't have to meet the requirements for "Healthy" or "Lean." Make sure to always check nutrition labels to be sure.

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Updated 3/12/2012