Jewish World Review April 7, 2003 / 5 Nisan II, 5763

EATING SMART: Watch those health claims on food labels

By Sheldon Margen and Dale A. Ogar | Are you confused by food labels? Wonder what "lite'' means? Or "enriched''? Don't know the difference between a "reduced-fat'' and "low-fat'' product?

Ten years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted a set of labeling laws for packaged foods that were designed to help consumers make healthy choices. The nutrition labels, with which we are all now familiar, put nutrients in the context of a 2,000-calorie diet, and standardized serving sizes. They also gave more information on fat, carbohydrate and fiber content, and approved the following definitions for words commonly used on labels. In case you wonder what these terms really mean, here's a set of definitions.

-- Free: Must be either absolutely free of a given nutrient (such as fat, sodium or cholesterol) or have an insignificant amount per serving.

-- Fresh: Food must be raw, never frozen or heated, and contain no preservatives.

-- Fortified, enriched, added or more: Food must have at least 10 percent more of the daily value for a particular nutrient (dietary fiber, potassium, protein or an essential vitamin or mineral) that was not originally in the food or that was present in smaller amounts.

-- Healthy: This term may only be used if a food is low in fat and saturated fat, and if a serving does not contain more than 480 mg of sodium or more than 60 mg of cholesterol.

In addition, the foods must provide at least 10 percent of the daily value for one or more of the following: vitamin A or C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber.

Certain foods (such as frozen dinners) must contain at least 10 percent of the daily value for two of these nutrients.

-- High or good source of a nutrient: Anything labeled "high'' must contain 20 percent or more of the daily value for that nutrient in a serving. "Rich'' or "excellent source'' means the same thing as "high.'' "Good source'' means a serving contains 10 percent to 19 percent of the daily value for that nutrient.

-- Lean and extra-lean: These terms are used to describe the fat content of meat, poultry, seafood and game. Lean foods have fewer than 10 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat and 95 mg of cholesterol per serving. "Extra-lean'' means fewer than 5 grams of fat and fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat.

-- Light or lite: Refers to nutritionally altered food products. Must contain one-third fewer calories or one-half the fat of the food from which it was derived.

-- Light in sodium: This term may mean that the sodium content of a low-calorie, low-fat food has been reduced by 50 percent. But "light'' can also refer to taste, color and texture, as long as this is explained.

-- Low: The word refers to total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories. Low-fat foods have fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving. "Low-saturated'' fat means less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. "Low-sodium'' foods must contain fewer than 140 mg of sodium. A claim for "very low in sodium'' can be made if a food contains 35 mg of sodium or less per serving. "Low-cholesterol'' foods must have fewer than 20 mg of cholesterol and fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat. "Low calorie'' means that the food has fewer than 40 calories per serving.

-- Reduced or less: This is a comparison of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, sodium and total calories. A food must have 25 percent less of a nutrient or calories than the regular product.

Specific health claims can only be made on food labels in those cases where there is sufficient scientific agreement among qualified experts that the claims are factual and truthful. The food must meet the definitions above for the nutrient in question, and the claims must include the terms "may'' or "might'' to describe the actual risk reducing or health-promoting qualities of the nutrients in that food.

Health claims differ from structure/function claims, such as "calcium builds strong bones,'' which do not deal with disease risk reduction. In the case of structure/function claims, the FDA does not intervene, but the manufacturer is responsible for making sure that such claims are not misleading.

By contrast, "health'' claims show a relationship between a nutrient or other substances in food and a disease or health-related condition. They can be used on conventional foods or dietary supplements.

The following links between food and health have been firmly established and are currently approved for use on food labels:

-- Calcium and osteoporosis: The food or supplement must be "high'' in calcium and not contain more phosphorus than calcium.

-- Sodium and high blood pressure: Foods must meet criteria for "low sodium.''

-- Dietary fat and cancer: Foods must meet criteria for "low-fat.'' Fish and game meats must meat requirements for "extra lean.''

-- Dietary saturated fat and cholesterol, and coronary artery disease: Foods must meet criteria for "low saturated fat,'' "low-cholesterol'' and "low-fat.'' Fish and game meats must meet criteria for "extra-lean.''

-- Fiber (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) and cancer. Foods must meet requirements for `low fat` and without fortification be a 'good source' of fiber.

-- Fiber (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) and coronary artery disease: Foods must meet criteria for "low saturated fat'' "low-fat'' and "low-cholesterol.'' They must contain, without fortification, at least 0.6 g of soluble fiber per serving.

-- Fruits and vegetables and cancer: Foods must meet criteria for "low-fat'' and without fortification, be a "good source'' of fiber, vitamin A or vitamin C.

Folate and neural tube birth defects: Foods must meet or exceed criteria for "good source of folate,'' -- that is, at least 40 mcg of folic acid per serving (at least 10 percent of the daily value). A serving of food cannot contain more than 100 percent of the daily value for Vitamin A and Vitamin D because of their potential risk to fetuses.

Dietary sugar alcohol and cavities (while regular sugar and starches may promote tooth decay, sugarless gum and candies do not): Foods must meet the criteria for "sugar-free.'' The sugar substitute must be one of several specific sugar alcohols or a combination of them.

Sheldon Margen, M.D., is a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley. Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the University of California at Berkeley "Wellness Letter.'' They are the authors of "The Simply Healthy Lowfat Cookbook,'' "The Wellness Lowfat Cookbook'' and "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition.'' Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by TMS