In Lesson 3, we cover a host of health claims that show up on food packaging. Most of them — like made with real fruit! or all natural! — deserve to be ignored.
That said, if you’re cutting back on specific nutrients like salt or saturated fat, one type of health claim can be useful. “Nutrient content claims” describe how much of a specific nutrient a food contains. While these claims can certainly be misleading (just because something has low salt or no sugar doesn’t mean it’s good for you), a few can truly help you make healthier choices.
Below are a few to look out for, along with some important caveats. With any food, if you want to know what you’re eating, you must examine the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list.
Why it’s helpful: Foods and beverages labelled “unsweetened” haven’t had real or artificial sugars added to them during processing.
When it’s helpful: Choosing between products that often contain added sugar like milk alternatives, yogurt, oatmeal, iced tea, and applesauce.
Watch out for: Naturally-occurring sugar. Compare unsweetened products to find the one with the least sugar.
2. SUGAR FREE
Why it’s helpful: One serving of a “sugar free” food must contain less than .5 g of sugar.
When it’s helpful: Shopping for packaged foods that often contain sugar like sauces and nut butters.
Watch out for: Artificial sweeteners. They’re added to many sugar free foods as a substitute.
3. NO ADDED SUGAR
Why it’s helpful: This label indicates that no sugar was added to that food or beverage during processing.
When it’s helpful: Choosing naturally sweet foods that you plan to use in small amounts (like adding a splash of juice to your seltzer or swirling 1 tsp of fruit preserves into Greek Yogurt).
Watch out for: Artificial sweeteners like Splenda®, Sweet n Low®, and Equal®. The “fake” stuff can confuse our bodies and increase cravings for real sugar.
4. SODIUM FREE / SALT FREE / NO SODIUM
Why it’s helpful: One serving of a food with this label must deliver less than 5 mg of sodium.
When it’s helpful: Shopping for foods that typically contain salt, like soups, sauces, nuts and other snack foods.
Watch out for: Added sugars, which may be elevated to make up for lost flavor from salt.
5. VERY LOW SODIUM / LOW SODIUM
Why it’s helpful: “Very low sodium” means a food has 35 mg or less of sodium per serving, while “low sodium” means it contains 140 mg of sodium or less.
When it’s helpful: Shopping for products that typically contain salt, like soups, sauces, packaged meals, and snack foods.
Watch out for: Small serving sizes. Consider how many servings you’re likely to eat and how that will impact your salt intake. The recommended limit for most people is 2300 mg/day.
6. EXTRA LEAN / LEAN
Why it’s helpful: “Extra lean” meat contains less than 5 g of fat per serving. Meat marked “lean” has less than 10 g of fat.
When it’s helpful: When buying steaks and ground meats naturally high in saturated fat, like beef, pork, and turkey.
Watch out for: Meat in the butcher case that isn’t labelled. Ask about fat content, and look for cuts that contain the word “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” which typically have less.
7. CALORIE FREE
Why it’s helpful: A “calorie free” food must have no more than 5 calories per serving.
When it’s helpful: Buying beverages like seltzer or iced tea.
Watch out for: Calorie free drinks that are flavored with artificial sweeteners — research suggests that they can trigger sugar cravings.
FDA. Label Claims for Conventional Foods and Dietary Supplements https://www.fda.gov/Food/LabelingNutrition/ucm111447.htm. Updated 1/3/2018. Accessed June 7, 2018.
American Heart Association. Food Packaging Claims. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/Nutrition/Food-Packaging-Claims_UCM_470400_Article.jsp#.WvUs29MvxE4. Updated March 7, 2017. Accessed June 7, 2018.