The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates a wide variety of things in the area of drugs and food we purchase and consume daily. One segment of this regulator territory is the labeling of these products. It should come as no surprise that the FDA has certain requirements if a manufacturer is to use certain terms.
These terms include “free”, “low”, “high” or “lite”. If a manufacturer labels a product as being low or high or free of a certain item or ingredient, the product must meet certain criteria. What may be surprising to many is that the terms used may not be as straight forward as the average consumer believes.
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FDA Terms That Lack Clarity
FDA standards are very precise, but they are not as clear as some consumers would like them to be. In today’s health-conscious world, many shoppers want to know when something says it is sugar-free, or has no calories, that is exactly what it means. Unfortunately, current FDA label regulations do not currently meet those expectations.
Certain terms which can be misleading to the average consumer.
“No sugar added” does not mean the product is sugar-free. It means that no additional sugar was added during processing; sugars may be naturally present in the product.
If a product is marked as “Reduced” such as reduced fat, the item being labeled must contain a minimum of 25 percent less fat than the regular version of the same food.
“More Fiber” or “Added Fiber” is an indication of a product which contains 2.5 grams more fiber per individual serving than the regular version of the same food.
For a product to be labeled “Low Calorie” it must contain 40 or fewer calories per individual serving.
A “low fat” label indicates the product contains 3.0 grams or less fat per individual serving.
“High fiber” indicates the product contains 5.0 grams or more fiber, while at the same time 3.0 grams or less of fat per serving.
In order for a product to be labeled as a “Good source of Fiber” it must contain between 2.5 and 4.9 grams of fiber per individual serving.
If a product is marked “lite” or “light” it is an indication the product contains one-third of the calories of the regular version of the same food. Products can also be marked in this manner if the product contains 50 percent fat per serving.
A “low cholesterol” label can only be applied to a product if it contains less than 2.0 mg of cholesterol as well as 2.0 grams or less of saturated fat per individual serving.
FDA Labels Marked “Free” May not Be Free at All
It may not come as a surprise that marking an item “low” or “lite” does not mean exactly what we might expect. However, when an item is marked with the terms “Free” or “No” most people would believe the product is free or has none of the product listed. This is not the case when it comes to FDA labels.
“Sugar Free” indicates the item contains 0.5 grams or less of sugar per individual serving.
“No Calories” or “Calorie Free” means the item contains fewer than 5.0 calories per individual serving.
“Fat Free” items contain 0.5 grams of fat per individual serving.
If an item is marked as being “Cholesterol Free” it contains less than 2.0 mg of cholesterol as well as 2.0 grams or less of saturated fat per individual serving.
“Trans Fat Free” items contains 0.5 grams of trans fat or less.
Some manufacturers have made no changes to the products themselves, but instead have modified the serving size in order to reach the lower threshold required. For instance if a product has 0.9g of fat, they simply cut the serving size in half and the fat content goes to 0.45g and they can now label the product as being fat free. No longer can you assume one individual package of cupcakes or chips is a single serving. A single serving may be only one of the two cupcakes, so be certain to check the number of servings listed on the product.
Many people now take the time to read product labels and ingredients in an attempt to provide a healthier lifestyle for themselves and their families. While the FDA guidelines may not always reflect what the general public perceives them to say, the manufacturers often intentionally manipulate their marketing in order to mislead or confuse consumers.
It is unfortunate consumers cannot trust manufacturers to do the right thing when it comes to the health and well being of our families. The company’s goal is to make a profit and sell more product. It is the FDA’s goal to control manufacturers to some extent without creating an environment which is too restrictive or confusing. The consumer is left somewhere in the middle, struggling to find accurate product information which the average lay person can understand and use.