What are these health claims I see on food labels?

Manufacturers make claims about the nutritional value of their products. Sometimes these claims can be a little confusing. Below are some details on what these claims mean.

  • Cholesterol free means that the food must contain fewer than 2 milligrams of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving. For example, although vegetable oils contain no cholesterol, they are 100% fat. Vegetable oils are still preferable to butter or lard because they have less saturated fat. But a tablespoon of vegetable oil still has about 14 grams of fat and the same 126 calories found in a tablespoon of butter or cream.
  • Low cholesterol indicates that a given serving contains 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Low fat means that a food must have 3 grams or less of fat per serving.
  • Fat free means that a food has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving.
  • Low saturated fat means that a food has 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving and not more than 15% of its calories come from saturated fat.
  • Low-sodium foods contain 140 milligrams or less of ­sodium per serving and per 100 grams of food. Ordinary table salt (sodium chloride) is not the only source of ­sodium. It is also found in monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), and sodium nitrate and occurs naturally in some foods.
  • Very low sodium means that a food contains 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving and per 100 grams of food.
  • Sodium free or salt free items have less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Light in salt means that the food has 50% less ­sodium than the regular version.
  • Sugar free means that the item has less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
  • Dietetic indicates that something has been changed or replaced. It could contain less sugar, less salt, less fat, or less cholesterol than the regular version of the same product. For example, if you look at a package of “dietetic” cookies, they might be low in sodium but are not as low in calories or sugar as you might be led to believe.
  • Natural has no specific meaning except for meat and poultry products. For meat and poultry products, it means that no chemical preservatives, hormones, or similar substances have been added. On other food labels, natural is not restricted to any particular meaning by government regulation.
  • Fresh can only be used to describe raw food that has not been frozen, heat processed, or preserved in some other way.
Laura Motosko, MSEd, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics

The Food and Drug Adminstration regulates health claims on food labels. The health claims should idealy guide people to choose foods that are high in nutrients or help prevent chronic disease.

Deborah Beauvais
Nutrition & Dietetics
The FDA has strict guidelines on how certain food label terms can be used. Some of the most common claims seen on food packages are listed below:
  • Low calorie -- Less than 40 calories per serving.
  • Low cholesterol -- Less than 20 mg of cholesterol and 2 gm or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Reduced -- 25% less of the specified nutrient or calories than the usual product.
  • Good source of -- Provides at least 10% of the DV of a particular vitamin or nutrient per serving.
  • Calorie free -- Less than 5 calories per serving.
  • Fat free / sugar free -- Less than 1⁄2 gram of fat or sugar per serving.
  • Low sodium -- Less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.
  • High in -- Provides 20% or more of the Daily Value of a specified nutrient per serving.
  • High fiber -- 5 or more grams of fiber per serving.
FDA also sets standards for health-related claims on food labels to help consumers identify foods that are rich in nutrients and may help to reduce their risk for certain diseases. For example, health claims may highlight the link between calcium and osteoporosis, fiber and calcium, heart disease and fat or high blood pressure and sodium.
For more information on reading and understanding food labels discuss with a registered dietitian or visit the website for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Toby Smithson
Nutrition & Dietetics

Health claims are regulated by U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are science based. There are a set of criteria that must be followed in order for a product to make a health claim. Currently there are 17 approved health claims. Some of the claims are: calcium and osteoporosis; calcium and vitamin D and osteoporosis, sodium and high blood pressure, dietary fat and cancer, dietary saturated fat and the risk of heart disease, fiber containing grains, fruits, and vegetables and cancer, fruits, vegetables and grains that contain soluble fiber and risk of heart disease, fruits and vegetables and cancer, folate and neural tube defects are a few of the approved health claims.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.