Labels, Food


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires most foods to carry nutrition labels. Exceptions include:

Also exempt are foods produced by small businesses. So are restaurant foods¾except those for which health claims are made.


Nutrition Facts that Must Be Reported


When a label does include nutrition information, it must cover a minimal set of nutrients, arranged in a standard order. Two exceptions: 1) foods that are virtually calorie-free and contain insignificant amounts of at least seven of the mandatory nutrients listed below, and 2) foods that come in packages too small to accommodate a complete nutrition label (chewing gum, for example). Here are the mandatory nutrients and their units of measure, listed in standard order:

What "Low-Fat," "Light," and Other Terms Mean


The FDA requires certain words on labels to meet strict definitions. Here's a brief lexicon:


"Free." Containing no amount of, or only trivial or "physiologically inconsequential" amounts of either fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, or calories¾whichever is specified. Allowed synonyms include "without," "no," and "zero."


"Low." Even if eaten frequently, the food won't exceed dietary guidelines for certain nutrients. Specifically:


"Low fat": 3 grams or less per serving


"Low saturated fat": 1 gram or less per serving


"Low sodium": 140 milligrams or less per serving


"Very low sodium": 35 milligrams or less per serving


"Low cholesterol": 20 milligrams or less and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving


"Low calorie": 40 calories or less per serving.


"Lean." Applies only to meat, poultry, seafood, and game meats, as follows:


"Lean": less than 10 grams or fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams (about 3½ ounces)


"Extra lean": less than 5 grams or fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving and per 100 grams.


"High." One serving contains 20 percent or more of the Daily Value of the nutrient.


"Good source." One serving contains 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value of the nutrient.


"Reduced." Contains at least 25 percent less of the nutrient than the regular, or reference, product. (Can be applied only to nutritionally altered foods; can't be applied if the reference food is already "low" in the nutrient.)


"Less." Same as "reduced," except that it can be applied whether the food is nutritionally altered or not. Acceptable synonym: "fewer."


"Light." Can mean two things:

(The term "light" can still be used to describe such properties as texture and color, as long as the label explains the intent¾for example, "light brown sugar" and "light and fluffy."


"More." One serving contains at least 10 percent more of the nutrient than a serving of the reference food does. (Can be applied to any food.)


"Fortified," "Enriched," "Added." Same definition as "more," except that these terms can be applied only to nutritionally altered foods.


"Healthy." Is low in fat and saturated fat and contains limited amounts of cholesterol and less than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving. (By early 1998, the limit for sodium was to have dropped to 360 milligrams for individual foods and 480 milligrams for packaged meals such as frozen entrées or TV dinners.) In addition, if it's a single-item food, it must provide at least 10 percent of the Daily Value of one or more of vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or dietary fiber. If it's a packaged meal, it must provide 10 percent of the Daily Value of two or three of these vitamins or minerals or of protein or dietary fiber, in addition to meeting the other criteria.


"Fresh." When it implies that a food is raw or unprocessed, this term can be applied only to foods that are raw, have never been frozen or heated, and contain no preservatives. (Irradiation at low levels is allowed.) "Fresh frozen," "frozen fresh," and "freshly frozen" can be used for foods that are quickly frozen while still fresh. (Blanching is allowed.) Other uses of the term "fresh," such as in "fresh milk" or "freshly baked bread," are not affected.


"Percent fat-free." Can be applied only to foods that qualify as low-fat or fat-free (see above), and must accurately reflect the amount of fat in 100 grams of the food. If a food contains 2.5 grams of fat per 50 grams, for example, the claim must be "95 percent fat-free."


(Alternative spellings of all the terms above are acceptable¾"hi" and "lo," for example¾as long as the alternatives are not misleading.)


Implied Claims


These are prohibited when consumers would wrongly infer that a food does or does not contain a meaningful level of a nutrient. For example, a claim that a product is made with an ingredient known to be a source of dietary fiber ("made with oat bran," for example) would not be allowed unless the product contained enough oat bran to qualify as a "good source" of dietary fiber. Similarly, a claim that a product contains "no tropical oils" would be allowed only on foods that are "low" in saturated fat¾because consumers have come to equate tropical oils with saturated fat.


Health Claims


Food labels are allowed to make claims for eight different relationships between a food or nutrient and the risk of a disease or health condition. Each claim must use the word "may" or "might," however, and cannot state a degree of risk reduction. It must also say that other factors play a role in that disease. The allowed claims are as follows:

To get more information on label regulations... might start by visiting the FDA's Web site at



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Last Modified: 7/1/07