What Food Labels Really Mean

Many front-of-the-package food labels are deceptive. Here’s what you need to know.

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Walk into any supermarket, and you'll find rows of packaged foods boasting how healthy they are. From "fat-free" to "natural" to "helps your immune system," front-of-the-box labels may give the appearance of good nutrition, but the reality is a bit more complicated.

Unlike the Nutrition Facts panel, which is tightly regulated, front-of-the-package food labels aren't as closely monitored. In addition, food companies tend to "stretch the envelope" of what's permitted, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. The result, she says: Many of the health claims you see are misleading.

[See 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

In the past few years, the Food and Drug Administration has gone after more than a dozen food companies for deceptive labeling, but the most important thing for consumers to do, says Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, is to "be informed so they know how to interpret the label."

Here's a look at some of the most common front-of-the-package food labels, and what they really mean:

Fat-, Sugar-, or Salt-Free

Labeling a food as "free" of a certain nutrient, whether salt, sugar, or fat, means it has none, or a "physiologically inconsequential" amount of that nutrient, according to the FDA. If the package says "calorie-free," the item has fewer than 5 calories per serving. For sugar or fat, this means the food has fewer than 0.5 grams per serving. But be careful, says Frechman. A food "could say 'fat-free,' but it could contain a lot of calories from sugar," she explains. "If you're watching your weight, you should also look at the total calories."

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Low-Fat, Low-Sugar, or Low-Salt

If an item is labeled "low" in a particular element, it means that you can eat several servings without exceeding the recommended daily limit. Low-fat products have fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving; low-saturated fat items have less than 1 gram per serving. Low-sodium means the food has 140 milligrams or less per serving; low-cholesterol means 20 mg. or less and fewer than 2 grams of saturated fat. Low-calorie products have fewer than 40 calories per serving.

No Trans Fats

Even if a package advertises "no trans fats," be careful. Products carrying this label can still have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving, according to the FDA. "If you eat a bunch of servings, it could add up," says Frechman. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that raise your LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad" kind) and increase your risk of heart disease. Because of these health risks, trans fats have been banned or restricted in several cities and counties across the United States.

Health Claims

Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, says the FDA requires scientific consensus before a company can claim its product strengthens a body part or prevents a disease. However, claims that a food maintains or supports a bodily function are not monitored as strictly. While the FDA gives the vague guideline that they must be "truthful and not misleading," it does not require any scientific evidence for these claims to be made. A CSPI report gives an example of how confusing this can be: The label "may help reduce the risk of heart disease" would require FDA approval, while "helps maintain a healthy heart" would not. Another common but largely unregulated health claim is "helps support immunity." According to Jacobson, this kind of wording "is a great example of how companies are tricking consumers," because there may not be any evidence to back their claims. Nestle offers her own advice: "My somewhat facetious rule is never to buy anything with a health claim because they are all misleading."

Natural

The FDA has no formal definition for what "natural" means, but defers to a nearly 20-year-old policy that says it will not object to the label as long as the product "does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances." In the end, Nestle says, the "natural" label "means basically whatever the manufacturer decides."