What the Labels Mean

Did You Know... that 6 out of 10 Americans always try to check the nutrition label to determine the fat content of foods and beverages they buy?

Understanding Food Labels on Light, Reduced-Fat and Low-Calorie Foods

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food labeling regulations require that essentially all food labels provide nutrition information to help consumers make informed food choices.

The regulations have a significant impact on low-calorie, low-fat and “light” foods and beverages which are so popular today. Definitions for terms such as “light” and “low-fat” have been approved by FDA. The following is a summary of some of these definitions.

The Meaning of “Light”

FDA’s final regulations provide a specific definition for “light” (or “lite”). “Light,” without any additional clarification, may only describe a food which has been significantly reduced in fat, calories, or sodium.

  • If a product is described as “light,” with no further explanation, consumers can be assured that:

  • for foods deriving more than 50 percent of calories from fat, the light product is reduced in fat by at least 50 percent; or
  • for foods deriving less than 50 percent of calories from fat, the light product is either reduced in calories by at least one third or reduced in fat by at least 50 percent; or
  • for foods with modified sodium content, the light product must be reduced in sodium by at least 50 percent.
     

Light products must be reduced in the given nutrient(s) as compared to what FDA calls a “reference food.” This is a representative value for a broad base of foods, such as an average of the three top national or regional brands of a given product. The reference food used for light claims can only be a similar food product where the difference is a result of reformulation (for example, regular potato chips would be the reference food a light potato chip). If the reference food already is considered “low in the designated nutrient (e.g., 3 grams of fat or less per reference amount), “light” claims may not be used.

Light” also may be used to describe certain physical attributes of a food, such as texture or color. However, if light is used in this manner, the product’s label must state that “light” refers to that particular product attribute (for example, “light in color” or “light in texture”).

Other Claims Defined by FDA

Other commonly displayed terms which play an important role in consumers’ selections of low-calorie, low-fat and light foods are “reduced” and “less (fewer).” Either claim may be used if a food contains at least a 25 percent reduction of the given nutrient when compared to the reference food.

FDA has established “reference amounts” for 139 different food product categories. These represent the amount of a given food customarily consumed per eating occasion.

Other labeling terms defined in the regulations include:

  • FAT-FREE less than 0.5 grams of total fat for a given reference amount
  • CALORIE-FREE less than 5 calories for a given reference amount
  • % FAT-FREE Products that are labeled as __% fat free must contain 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount. A “100% fat-free” claim may be made only on foods that meet the criteria for “fat free” and also contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per 100 grams and contain no added fat.
  • CHOLESTEROL-FREE less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol for a given reference amount and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount
  • SATURATED FAT-FREE less than 0.5 grams saturated fat for a given reference amount, and no more than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids
  • LOW-FAT 3 grams or less of total fat for a given reference amount
  • LOW-CALORIE no more than 40 calories for a given reference amount (except sugar substitutes)
  • LOW-CHOLESTEROL 20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount
  • LOW-SATURATED FAT 1 gram or less of saturated fat for a given reference amount and not more than 15% of calories from saturated fat
Learn more about