Light, Low Fat, and Cholesterol Free: What These Words Really Mean?

There is hardly a package of food these days that’s not labeled “calorie free,” “low fat,” “reduced,” “sugar free”, “fat free” or “light”. These terms describe the percentage of calories, fat, cholesterol, or other nutrients in a food, and mean the same thing for all similar foods. The US government now defines some of these terms:

Calorie Free less than 5 calories per serving
Low Calorie 40 calories or less per serving
“Light” or “Lite” 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat per serving compared to a ‘regular’ version of that product; if more than half the calories are from fat, fat content must be reduced by 50% or more
Fat Free less than 1/2 gram fat per serving
Low Fat 3 grams or less fat per serving
Cholesterol Free less than 2 milligrams cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Low Cholesterol 20 milligrams or less cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less saturated fat per serving
Sodium Free less than 5 milligrams sodium per serving
Very Low Sodium 35 milligrams or less sodium per serving
Low Sodium 140 milligrams or less sodium per serving


Foods and Health Claims

Food packaging often carries “health claims” or a statement on their label that links the consumption of that particular food to reducing the risk of a specific disease. All foods can be part of a balanced, healthful diet even if they do not have health claims. However, to be able to make a health claim it is necessary that foods meet certain nutrient levels. For example, oat meal cookies, which are loaded with as much sugar and fat as they are with oats that are good for the heart and lowering cholesterol, can’t make a ‘heart-healthy’ claim. Similarly, neither can sugar-rich baked goods say they are heart healthy even if they are made with zero trans fat.

Food labels are now required to have nutritional information that is most relevant to your health included on them. What you see on the food label — the nutrition and ingredient information — is set by the government, based on current nutrition and health information. Ingredients are listed on the label by weight from most to least. For example, bread that lists “whole wheat“ first on the ingredient list means it has more whole wheat than anything else.

The title “Nutrition Facts” signals the label information. Similar food products have similar serving sizes. This makes it easier to compare foods. Serving sizes are based on amounts people actually eat. Only two vitamins (A and C) and two minerals (calcium and iron) are required on the food label. A food company can voluntarily list other vitamins and minerals in the food.

% Daily Value shows how a food fits into your overall eating plan. The % Daily Values for total fat, saturated fat, total carbohydrate, and dietary fiber are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. They are the label reference values. Many labels show Daily Values for a diet of 2,000 and 2,500 calories. Your own nutrient needs may be more than or less than the Daily Values on the label. It is important to adjust your own Daily Values to match your calorie level. The label tells the number of calories in a gram of fat, carbohydrate, and protein, as a reference point.