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Alice in label-land.

What's a "light" food? What does "lean" mean? How about "low-sodium"? We can't explain all the new regulations covering all the claims you're going to start seeing on food labels. Many are self-explanatory (thank goodness) or obscure. But here are some of the criteria for a few claims... along with their loopholes.

LOW-CHOLESTEROL

To make a "low-cholesterol" claim, an individual food can contain no more than 20 mg of cholesterol per typical serving (and saturated fat can't exceed two grams, because it raises blood cholesterol).

On a meal or main dish, "low-cholesterol" essentially means no more than 20 mg per 100 grams of food--which translates into about 60 mg in a 10-ounce main dish or meal. That's reasonable, since most main dishes and meals contain meat, fish, or poultry. Other than eggs, they're the biggest source of cholesterol in our diets.

The bottom line: You can trust "low-cholesterol" claims.

LOW-FAT

For individual foods, "low-fat" means no more than 3 grams of fat per typical serving.

Exception: All "low" claims (fat, calories, sodium, etc.) have stricter limits for foods with serving sizes less than two tablespoons.

Loophole: The limits on "low-fat" for main dishes or meals are too lenient. "Low-fat" on a meal or main dish essentially means no more than 30 percent of its calories can come from fat. But:

* Thirty percent of calories from fat isn't low-fat. It's a guideline for entire diets. To reach it, people will eat some foods with more than 30 percent of calories from fat and some with less. Only foods with considerably less are truly "low-fat."

* The definition of "low-fat" for individual foods is much tougher. Their 3-gram cutoff means that a "low-fat" food that has 150 or more calories--like plain yogurt--can have no more than 20 percent of its calories from fat.

The bottom line: You can trust "low-fat" on individual foods. For meals or main dishes, look for no more than 2 grams of fat for every 100 calories (that's 20 percent of calories from fat).

Loophole: Thanks to pressure from the dairy lobby, Congress exempted some claims on milk from the new regulations. So 2%-fat milk will be called "low-fat," even though it's got too much fat (5 grams) to meet the low-fat standard.

The bottom line: Only skim or 1%-fat milk is truly low-fat.

LOW IN SATURATED FAT

To be "low in saturated fat," individual foods can have no more than 1 gram of saturated fat per typical serving. A meal or main dish can usually make the claim if less than 10 percent of its calories come from saturated fat.

That's not quite low enough--7 or 8 percent would be better--but because of the way saturated fat numbers are rounded on the label, it doesn't pay to look for less.

The bottom line: You can trust "low-in-saturated-fat" claims.

GOOD SOURCE & HIGH

When can a food be called a "good source" of a vitamin, mineral, or fiber? When it contains at least 10 percent of the Daily Value for that nutrient. A food is "high" in the nutrient if it's got at least 20 percent of the Daily Value.

Exception: A meal can make a "high" claim for any of the foods it contains that meet the definition. For example, a label can say: "Contains broccoli, a good source of vitamin C."

LOW-SODIUM

For individual foods, "low-sodium" means 140 mg or less per typical serving. For main dishes or meals, it's 140 mg or less per 100 grams. That translates into about 400 mg of sodium in a typical 10-ounce meal or entree--about as low as they go.

The bottom line: You can trust "low-sodium" claims, except for meals that weigh 16 ounces or more. For those, look for no more than 600 mg of sodium.

LIGHT or LITE

"Light" means different things for different foods.

* If the food starts out fatty, "light" means that at least half its fat has been removed. That applies to cheese, hot dogs, and other foods that initially get half or more of their calories from fat.

* Less fatty foods are "light" if either the fat content has been cut in half or the calories have been cut by a third. Don't worry, the label has to tell you which.

* A main dish or meal is "light" if it meets the definition of either "low-fat" or "low-calorie."

* "Light" can refer to color or texture, but the label must say so clearly.

* "Light" can also mean half the usual sodium content or less, but the label must say "light in sodium."

Loophole: If the food is "low-fat" or "low-calorie," "light" can mean half the sodium without mentioning the word "sodium".

Loophole: "Light" can appear--without explanation--on foods like brown sugar, cream, or molasses--if "light" has traditionally been part of their name.

DISCLOSURE

The FDA requires a disclosure like this one any time the label makes a nutrient claim (like "High Fiber") and the food exceeds 20 percent of the DV for fat, saturated fat, sodium, or cholesterol.

Loophole: The percentages that trigger disclosures are much too high for main dishes (30 percent of the DV) and meals (40 percent).

LEAN & EXTRA LEAN

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defined "lean" and "extra lean" to help consumers find lower-fat cuts of fresh meat and poultry, few of which could have made "low-fat" claims. Essentially, the definitions are:

Lean: less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.

Loopholes:

* A "lean" food usually has more fat than a "low-fat" food. Exception: a meal or main dish that weighs more than 12 oz.

* A "lean" food usually has more saturated fat than a "low-in-saturated-fat" food. Exception: a meal or main dish that weighs more than 15 oz.

Extra Lean: less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 mg of cholesterol.

Loopholes:

* An "extra lean" food usually has more fat than a "low-fat" food. Exception: all meals or main dishes.

* An "extra lean" food usually has more saturated fat than a "low-in-saturated-fat" food. Exception: meals or main dishes that weigh at least 8 oz.

Loophole: In order to be labeled "lean," raw fresh seafood must qualify. But fresh meat and poultry can qualify if either the raw or cooked numbers are low enough. Producers will, no doubt, choose the numbers that make their meat or poultry look best.

The bottom line: For individual foods, ignore "lean" and "extra lean" if you can find similar foods that are "low-fat" and "low-in-saturated-fat." For meals and main dishes, look for no more than 2 grams of fat and less than 1 gram of saturated fat for every 100 calories.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:how to interpret food labels
Author:Liebman, Bonnie
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:1119
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