Whether they claim to be an excellent source of protein, low in sodium or high in fiber, all food products that highlight specific nutrients on the label must meet requirements set by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In an effort to protect consumers, in 1990, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed the Nutrient Labeling and Education Act, which included specific guidelines for the information placed on food packaging.
Many shoppers, however, may not realize that the statements they see on food packages are regulated and may be confused by claims like "fortified with vitamins" or "extra lean beef."
Nutrient Content Claim
The FDA defines a nutrient content claim as a claim on a food product that directly or indirectly states the amount of a particular nutrient in a food item. Amounts of carbohydrates, protein and fats are examples of nutrient content claims.
Good Vs. Excellent Source
One common food label claim is that a product is a good or excellent source of a certain vitamin or nutrient. To be considered a good source of a nutrient, the product has to contain between 10 and 19 percent of the daily recommended value for that nutrient.
For example, according to the Institute of Medicine, people should consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day. For any product to claim to be a good source of fiber, it must contain at least three grams of fiber — about 10 percent of the daily recommended amount of fiber.
To be an excellent source, a product would need to contain at least 5 grams of fiber, or 20 percent or more of the daily recommended amount.
Light and Reduced Products
Some labels highlight the lower levels of a nutrient found in food products. By claiming a product contains a reduced amount of fat, the manufacturer implies that this product contains less fat than what is found in similar products made by other brands.
Many products, including milk, yogurt and chips, make this type of claim. If a bag of chips, for example, claims to contain a reduced amount of sodium, it has to specify by what percentage the sodium content has been reduced.
Added, Fortified or Enriched Products
While some producers process foods to remove or reduce the amount of harmful nutrients they contain, other foods have beneficial nutrients added to them. Common added nutrients include calcium, fiber and vitamin D.
Similar to products that use a reduced claim on the food label, a food label that boasts an added nutrient must specify by what percentage the nutrient content has been increased. This also includes products that claim to be fortified with a nutrient.
Lean and Extra Lean
“Lean” and “extra lean” are two other common nutrient content claims typically found on meat or seafood packages. These claims reference the fat and cholesterol in a product. For a meat or seafood product to be considered lean, it must contain 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, less than 10 grams of total fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
To qualify as extra lean, the product has to contain less than 2 grams of saturated fat, less than 5 grams of total fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.
The FDA based all of these guidelines on a 2,000-calorie diet. For individuals who take in more or less than 2,000 calories per day, the daily recommended values of these nutrients will change.
While food labels can be helpful, Deborah Gordon, MD, a nutrition and preventive medicine expert, suggested having a plan in place before going grocery shopping to make healthy decisions.
“I counsel people to make their decisions about how they want to eat outside of the store, and once in the store, to fill most of their cart with [unpackaged foods like fruits and vegetables]," she said.
For foods that do come in packages, such as loaves of bread, she said consumers should carefully read the labels to make healthy choices.