Food label definitions not always clear

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s health section on February 13, 2013.

Screen Shot 2013-04-06 at 8.02.54 PMIf you’re trying to stick to a healthy diet, all the power to you. But don’t necessarily rely on food labels for guidance. For example, the word “light” on a food label can refer to many things besides calorie count, including the food’s color or texture.

And “reduced” anything – sugar, salt, fat – is a relative term. Under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation, reduced sugar or salt or fat simply means the food product must contain 25 percent less of the offending ingredient than the original recipe calls for.

FDA guidelines for “low fat” and “low calorie” are more concrete. “Low fat” means that the fat content is no more than 3 grams of fat per serving, and a food product labeled “low calorie” is not supposed to contain more than 40 calories per serving.

“Low sodium” means there can be no more than 140 milligrams of salt for every 100 grams of the food. But “low sugar” is not a term the FDA regulates, so its meaning is unclear.

“No sugar added” tells you that the food makers didn’t introduce any sugar into the food. But that’s not to say the food doesn’t contain natural sugars like fructose.