Food labels

The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEAD) gave the Food and Drug Administration a legal base to implement some changes in how food packages are labeled so consumers will know the nutritional content of virtually every packaged food. Effective May 1994, the FDA required all processed foods to be labeled. This inlcudes all packaged foods, but not fresh meat, poultry, fish, and produce. Some key features of the regulation are:

Nutrition facts
The food label has a nutrition panel. "Nutrition Facts" tells the consumer that the food's label meets the regulations. The dietary components under Nutrition Facts appear in the same order. They include:

In addition:


Specific Parts of the Nutrition Information Panel

Serving Sizes
The serving sizes listed on the label are uniform and reflect the amounts of a food that people, 4 years of age or older, actually eat at one time. The amounts are expressed as common household measures (cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons) and metric measures.

Ingredient listing
Mandatory requirements for listing the ingredients of a food include the following.

Health claims
Health claims are permitted on foods only if the nutrient/disease relationship statements made are one of the seven allowed according to the regulations. The relationship statements must be supported by publicly available scientific evidence. In addition, there must be significant scientific agreement among qualified scientists. The following nutrient/disease relationship statements are allowed on labels:

Health claims can be made in several ways:

There are several restrictions on health claims. They:

An example of an appropriate health claim is: “While many factors affect heart disease, diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of this disease.”

Nutrition Label Format
The nutrition label on a package uses Daily Value as a reference. Daily Values (DV’s) provide a basis to compare certain food components - total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars, and protein. These nutrients are listed on all nutrition labels. The suggested daily intake for these nutrients is listed in the bottom half of the nutrition label. The Reference Daily Value is based on two sets of dietary standards:

Recommended Daily Intake (RDI)
The RDI replaces the U.S. RDA (Recommended Daily Allowances), which was introduced in 1973 as a label reference for vitamins, minerals, and protein. RDI’s for protein and 26 vitamins and minerals provide consumers a way to compare the protein, vitamins, and mineral content of foods. They are based on the most recent National Academy of Sciences’ Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA’s). There are four separate age categories for RDI’s.

Daily Reference Values (DRV)
Daily Reference Values (DRV’s) provide a basis to compare certain dietary components. They are based on two levels of caloric intake, 2,000 and 2,500 daily calories. DRV’s are calculated as follows:

DRV’s for the following nutrients are the uppermost limit that is desirable from a health standpoint:

In an effort to improve the format and content of food labels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has introduced core terms, called “descriptors,” that can be used to describe a food if it meets the definition. These terms are standardized so consumers will be able to interpret any food products labeled with that term.

Implied claims are prohibited when they wrongfully imply that a food contains or does not contain a meaningful amount of a nutrient. For example, a product claiming to be made with an ingredient known to be a source of fiber, such as “made with oat bran,” cannot make that claim unless the product contains enough of that ingredient (oat bran) to meet the definition for “good source” of fiber.

Food Label Descriptors
Descriptor Meaning
Free Describes a food that contains no amount of or only a trivial amount of one or more of these components: fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and calories. For example, "calorie-free" means fewer than 5 calories per serving; "sugar-free" and "fat-free" both mean less than 0.5 grams per serving.

Describes the amount of a dietary component (fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories) in a food; allows frequent consumption of that food without exceeding the Dietary Guidelnes. For example:

  • "Low-fat" means 3 grams or less per serving and per 50 grams of product. This is to prevent foods in which the serving size is naturally very small, such as nondairy creamer, from calling itself low-fat. (A one tablespoon serving of nondairy creamer has less than 3 grams of fat; 50 grams has more than 3 grams of fat.)
  • "Low sodium" means less than 140 milligrams per serving.
  • "Low-cholesterol" means less than 20 milligrams per serving.
  • "Low-calorie" means 40 calories or less per serving.
Percent fat-free Describes a product that is a low-fat or a fat-free product. The claim must reflect the amount of fat present in 100 grams of the food. If a food contains 2.5 grams of fat per 50 grams, the claim must be "95% fat-free."
High Describes a food with 20% or more of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient in a serving.
Good source Emphasizes that one serving of a food contains 10-19% of the Daily Value for a particular nutrient.
Reduced Describes a nutritionally altered food product that contains 25% less of a nutrient or of calories than the original product.
Light (or lite)

Describes two possible situations:

  • A food containing two-thirds of the calories, or half the fat, than the original product.
  • A low-calorie, low-fat food with a sodium reduction of 50%.
Less Describes a food containing 25% less of a nutrient or of calories than the original food. For example, since pretzels have 25% less fat than potato chips, their package could have a "25% less fat than potato chips" claim.
More Describes a food containing at least 10% more of a given nutrient, such as fiber or potassium, than a comparable food.
Fresh Describes a food that is raw, has never been frozen or heated, and contains no preservatives. Irradiation at low levels is allowed. Blanching (brief scalding before freezing) is allowed.
Healthy Describes a food that is low in fat and saturated fat, and contains no more than 480 milligrams sodium or 60 milligrams cholesterol per serving.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has identical terminology as the above FDA definitions, except those of the FSIS are related to the meat and poultry products it inspects and regulates. Two additional definitions follow.
Lean Describes meat or poultry products with less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.
Extra lean Describes meat or poultry products with less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams.

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