Are you familiar with the label language on food products in the grocery store?
The label on a can of pears says there is “no added sugar.”
The words on a milk carton boast that it is “high in calcium.”
Certain breakfast cereals claim to be “high in fiber.”
“Lite” salad dressing and cookies with “fewer calories” also catch your eye.
These are all nutrient content claims. The optional information in a nutrient claim tells you that a food contains desirable levels of certain nutrients or alerts you to avoid foods that contain specific nutrients detrimental to your health.
What is a Nutrient Claim?
This is a claim concerning a product’s nutritional value. It describes the content of a food, including the amount of nutrients, calories, cholesterol, or fiber, but not in exact amounts. Usually placed on the front of the food label, the nutrient claim provides a quick comparison between similar products.
Have you ever wondered if you can believe the nutrient claims on food labels? Yes, you can. Under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, the government set strict rules and definitions that a product must meet to make a nutrient claim or a health claim. If a product meets these stringent criteria, the manufacturer can display certain approved claims about the food.
Approved Terms: By knowing the definitions of terms used on food labels, you can choose foods wisely. The NLEA permits the use of label claims that describe the level of a nutrient in a food (e.g., nutrient content claims). Nutrient content claims describe the level of a nutrient or dietary substance in the product, using terms such as free, high, and low, or they compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms such as more, reduced, and lite. Refer to the table “Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims” on the next page to learn what these claims mean.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that a nutrient content claim on a food package be based on how much of the food most people usually eat or drink. This is called the reference amount. Serving size and reference amount are usually the same.
Always check the label because sometimes the serving size and reference amount are different. For example, a serving size of low-calorie soda is 12 fl. oz., but the low-calorie claim on the label is based on a reference amount of 8 fl. oz. Therefore, the manufacturer must include this statement: “40 calories or less per 240 milliliters (8 fl. oz.).”
Daily Values: Most nutrient claims apply to nutrients that have an established Daily Value (DV), which is the basis for nutrient claims such as a food that is “low” in sodium or a “good source” of fiber. Use the % DV to compare a food with a nutrient claim to a similar food without a claim.
A food that provides 10% or more of the Daily Value for a nutrient per serving is a good source, while a food providing 20% is considered “high in” the nutrient. Choose several servings of foods that are “high in” or “good sources” of hard-to-get nutrients like calcium. Recommended amounts are the minimums you should consume daily.
Any food containing less than 5% of a Daily Value provides only a small amount of that nutrient. Aim for 100% or less of the Daily Value for nutrients that should be limited, such as total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugar, and sodium. For more information on % DVs, refer to HGIC 4057, Determining Nutritional Value of Foods.
Definitions of Nutrient Content Claims
|Nutrient Content Claim||What the Claim Means Per Serving|
|High (rich in, excellent source)||20% or more of the Daily Value|
|Good||10% to 19% of the Daily Value|
|More||Contains at least 10% more of the Daily Value for vitamins, minerals, protein, dietary fiber, or potassium.*|
|Light||Has at least ⅓ fewer calories or 50% less fat.* If more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more.|
|Less or fewer||Has 25% less of a nutrient or of calories|
|Calorie free||Less than 5 calories|
|Low calorie||40 calories or less|
|Reduced calories||At least 25% fewer calories*|
|Sugar free||Less than 0.5 gram sugars|
|Reduced sugar||At least 25% less sugar*|
(If food is not low in total fat, the label must state total fat in conjunction with the fiber claims.)
|High fiber||5 grams or more|
|Good source of fiber||2.5 grams to 4.9 grams|
|More or added fiber||At least 2.5 grams more*|
|Sodium free or salt free||Less than 5 milligrams sodium|
|Very low sodium||35 milligrams of sodium or less|
|Low sodium||140 milligrams of sodium or less|
|Reduced sodium||At least 25% less sodium*|
|Light in sodium||At least 50% less sodium|
|Salt free||Less than 5 milligrams sodium|
|Fat free||Less than 0.5 gram fat|
|Low fat||3 grams or less total fat|
|Reduced fat||At least 25% less fat than the regular version|
|Saturated Fat Claims|
|Saturated fat free||Less than 0.5 gram saturated fat and less than 0.5 gram trans fatty acids|
|Low in saturated fat||1 gram or less saturated fat & no more than 15% calories from saturated fat|
|Reduced saturated fat||At least 25% less saturated fat* and reduced by more than 1 gram fat|
|Note: Trans fat has no FDA-defined nutrient content claims.|
|Cholesterol free||Less than 2 milligrams cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat|
|Low cholesterol||20 milligrams or less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat|
|Reduced cholesterol||At least 25% less cholesterol and 2 grams or less saturated fat*|
|Lean||Contains less than 10 grams total fat, 4.5 grams or less saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol|
|Extra lean||Contains less than 5 grams total fat, less than 2 grams saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams cholesterol|
|*compared to the reference, or regular, food this would replace|
All these terms give a general idea of a food’s nutrient content. For the exact amount of nutrients and calories in one serving, read the Nutrition Facts, which is usually on the side or back of the package.
Light: The term “light” can also be used to describe texture and color if the label explains the intent (e.g., “light brown sugar” and “light and fluffy”).
Healthy: A “healthy” food is low in fat and saturated fat and contains limited amounts of cholesterol (60 mg or less per serving) and sodium (480 mg or less per serving). If it is a single-item food, it also must follow the “10-percent” rule. This means that it provides at least 10% of the DV per serving of at least one of these: vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber.
Certain fresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetables and certain cereal-grain products are exceptions to this rule. They can be labeled “healthy” even if they don’t have at least 10% DV per serving of the above nutrients.
Meal-type products (e.g., frozen entrees and multi-course frozen dinners) must provide 10% DV of two or three of these: vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber, as well as meet the other criteria. Sodium content cannot exceed 360 mg per serving for individual foods and 480 mg per serving for meal-type products.
If a food is labeled “healthy” or makes a health claim, it cannot contain any nutrient that increases the risk for disease. It must contain no more than 20% of the DV per serving of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. Therefore, low-fat and fat-free milks qualify to make the calcium and osteoporosis claim, yet whole milk contains too much saturated fat to make that claim.
Percent Fat-Free: A product with this claim must be low-fat or fat-free, and the claim must show the amount of fat present 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% fat-free.”
Implied: These claims are prohibited if they wrongfully suggest that there is, or is not, a meaningful level of a nutrient in a food. For example, “made with oat bran” is not allowed unless the product contains enough oat bran to meet the definition of “good source” of fiber. However, a claim that a product contains “no tropical oils” is allowed, but only on foods “low” in saturated fat. Why? Consumers have come to equate tropical oils with high saturated fat.
Meals & Main Dishes: A meal or main dish that claims to be “free” of a nutrient (e.g., cholesterol or sodium) must meet the same requirements as those for individual foods. The following claims can be used under special circumstances:
- Low calorie means the meal or main dish contains 120 calories or less per 100 g.
- Low sodium meals and main dishes have 140 mg or less sodium per 100 g.
- Low cholesterol means the food contains 20 mg cholesterol or less per 100 g and no more than 2 g saturated fat.
- Light meals and main dishes are low-fat or low-calorie.
Standardized Foods: Any nutrient content claim (e.g., “reduced fat,” “low calorie”) can be used in conjunction with a standardized term if the new product:
- has been specifically formulated to meet FDA’s criteria for that claim
- is not nutritionally inferior to the traditional standardized food
- complies with specific compositional requirements set by FDA
A new product that makes a claim must have performance characteristics similar to the referenced traditional standardized food. If it does not, and the product’s use is limited, the label must inform consumers of the differences (e.g., “not recommended for baking”).
Health claims, which the FDA must authorize, describe a relationship between a nutrient or food and a disease or health-related condition. If a claim names a specific disease risk, there is substantial scientific evidence that the food product may help protect against the disease in the context of a healthy diet. A few examples are:
- Fruits and vegetables and a reduced risk of cancer.
- Calcium and a lower risk of osteoporosis.
- Fat and a greater risk of cancer.
- Sodium and a greater risk of high blood pressure.
Health claims must be written so that consumers can understand the nutrient’s importance in the daily diet and the relationship between the nutrient and the disease. An example is: “While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of this disease.”
The FDA does not regulate health claims made in magazine and television advertisements.
Claims on Functional Foods
If food products meet strict government rules and definitions, their labels can display certain nutrient or health claims. On the other hand, the labels of functional foods and other products claiming to be dietary supplements are largely unregulated. This allows them to make misleading, unsubstantiated (but legal) claims.
A nutrient or health claim and a claim on functional food may look similar, but you must learn the difference. A health claim is well-researched, reliable, and approved by FDA (e.g., “may reduce the risk of heart disease”).
Although deceptively similar, a structure/function claim is not supported by scientific evidence, is far less regulated, and must be worded so that it does not mention a specific disease (e.g., “promotes a healthy heart,” “builds strong bones,” improves memory,” “slows aging,” or “provides a variety of health benefits”).
The following FDA disclaimer must be included on the label: “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, mitigate, cure or prevent any disease.”
For more information on food labeling, see:
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA, 11 Mar. 2020, www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Label Claims for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 19 June 2018, https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/label-claims-conventional-foods-and-dietary-supplements.
- Duyff, Roberta Larson. American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 3rd Edition. 2006.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Examination of Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols; Wartella EA, Lichtenstein AH, Boon CS, editors. Front-of-Package Nutrition Rating Systems and Symbols: Phase I Report. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2010. Appendix B, FDA Regulatory Requirements for Nutrient Content Claims. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209851/
- Sizer, Frances and Eleanor Whitney. Nutrition Concepts and Controversies, Ninth Edition. 2003.
- Brown, Lynne J. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Nutrition Facts: Nutrient Content Claims. 1998. http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/uk029.pdf
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Label Claims. Updated May 26, 2006. www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/lab-ssa.html
- “What the Labels Mean.” Calorie Control Council, Calorie Control Council , 26 Oct. 2015, caloriecontrol.org/what-the-labels-mean/.