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The lowdown on low fat claims: Food Labeling Definitions


You might be surprised to learn that “free” doesn’t mean the product is free from fat or trans-fats.  Read this article to help dechipher those oft-misleading claims on the package.


Food labeling claims can be confusing.  The USDA has created specific definitions and regulates what prepared food manufacturers can claim on the packaging label.   

Scanning the front of the packages as you wander down the food aisle of your local supermarket you will see dozens of claims - light, lite, lean, low calorie, fat-free, reduced fat and the list goes on seemingly endlessly.

However all of these claims do not mean the product is actually healthy or good for you.

You might be surprised to learn that “free” doesn’t mean the product is free from fat or trans-fats.  Only that there is less than 1/2 gram of fat in each serving.  This mean you must also check the serving size carefully.  

For example a bag of cookies may be labeled trans-fat free but the cookie size might be very small and the serving size could be one of those tiny little cookies. So if you eat a reasonable amount, say four, of the trans-fat free cookies you could be consuming nearly 2 grams of trans-fat!

There could be a significant amount of this artery clogging fat in those “trans-fat free” cookies if you eat an amount that any reasonable person would eat at a sitting.

Here is a list of common food packaging claims:

Lean: less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and 95 mg or less of cholesterol for every 100 grams of poultry, meat or seafood.

Extra-lean: less than 5 grams of fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and 95mg or less of cholesterol for every 100 grams of poultry, meat or seafood.

Light or Lite: half of the fat or 1/3 fewer calories that the regular product they are comparing to.

Low-calorie: less than 40 calories per serving (check that serving size, many times the manufacturer will reduce the serving size to an unreasonable sized serving in order to claim their product is “low-calorie”

Fat-Free: must contain less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving

Low-Fat: one serving must contain 3 grams or less of fat; or; 3 grams or less per 100 grams for a meal or main dish and the fat must be 30% or less of the total calorie content

Reduced-Fat: at least 25% less fat than the food it is being compared to.  Many times the maker will add sugar or high-fructose corn-syrup to meet this claim; check the ingredient list.  Reduced fat doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie or even healthy!

Low Saturated Fat: contains 1 gram or less and 15% or less of the calories from saturated fat

Trans-Fat Free: contains less than 0.5 grams of trans-fat per serving; make sure you check the serving size on the nutrition label.

Low-Cholesterol: contains 20mg or less of cholesterol per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat per serving

Less Cholesterol: contains 25% or less cholesterol than the food it is being compared to, per serving.

Cholesterol-Free: contains less than 2 mg per serving and 2 grams or less of saturated fat.

If you are watching your fat intake, carefully inspecting the label and checking the serving size along with some quick mental calculations can help let you figure out how much fat is actually in that packaged food.

That reduced fat muffin or carrot cake you see in your local coffee bar is very unlikely to be low in fat and low in calories.  If the regular version of the product contained 20 grams of fat and the “reduced fat” version contains 15 grams of fat that’s a heck of lot more than the 3 grams of fat needed to qualify as low-fat! 

If you are trying to purchase low-fat items, make sure that the product is actually low in fat and not just a high fat product that has been reduced in fat.  

Also be very careful of those “fat-free” packages of cookies.  If you eat more than the typically tiny serving that is on the label they are no longer a fat-free treat.  Those fractions of a gram add up quickly!

Once you learn to check the label on the back of the product instead of trusting the labeling on the front of the package you are well on your way to making and choosing healthier products for your family.

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