Many years ago, a snack chip manufacturer developed a corn chip labeled "light." Dieters were delighted. "It's about time," they thought, "a guilt-free chip." But upon closer inspection of the label, hearts sank. The new chips had more calories than regular chips -- they just had a new "light" texture.
To help avoid such baffling or misleading claims, the FDA in 1999 revised and strengthened its labeling guidelines, aiming to make packaging clearer and simpler. And yet, for many people, label-speak is still confusing.
Light, for example, might indeed mean one-third the calories or one-half the fat of the traditional form of the food, as the Food and Drug Administration guidelines now stipulate. But, as with the light chips, it might mean lighter in taste, color or texture.
If not referring to calories or fat, the FDA requires that the labeling be clear in describing other properties in the food, as in "light in flavor." So don't simply assume light foods have fewer calories or less fat -- compare the regular and light foods side by side. That bottle of light olive oil in your pantry may have as many calories as extra-virgin olive oil; it just has a milder, "light" taste.
Although the word "light" has probably caused more confusion than any other term on food labels, other descriptions can be almost as baffling.
Sometimes, for example, products can be both fat-free and 100% fat. Here's why -- a product with less than half a gram of fat per serving can legally be labeled fat-free. But if the product is a fat-free margarine made primarily of water with a small amount of fat, 100% of the calories are fat calories.
From a practical standpoint, at five calories or so per serving, fat-free margarine may not make much of a dent in your calorie budget, but slather enough of the stuff on your toast, and you may want to sit up and take notice.
The same caveat applies if the label says a food is "free" of sodium (having 5 milligrams or fewer per serving), sugar (less than half a gram) or calories (fewer than five per serving). Eaten in large enough quantities, small amounts can add up. I once had a patient who consumed more than 200 calories a day of sugar-free breath mints.
Though the label overhaul of 1999 was the most extensive, the FDA continues to refine its rules. The most recent change to the food label guidelines refers to the presence of trans fats. Because of the concern that these fats may increase the risk for heart disease, food manufacturers are scrambling to remove them from many products.
Keep in mind, though, that foods that are "trans-fat free" (having less than half a gram per serving) may not be fat-free. And they may still contain saturated fats, which can also raise cholesterol -- yet another reason to read the entire label.
Sometimes, a food may not be free of an ingredient but does contain less than the regular product. A 25% reduction in a nutrient (such as fat) or calories would allow the product to be labeled "reduced," "less" or "fewer" -- as in "reduced calorie mayonnaise" or "80% less fat than regular mayonnaise."
The terms "organic" and "natural" resonate with consumers, but foods labeled as such are not the same. Unless you are label-savvy, the lines between marketing and labeling of organic foods can be a tad blurry.
Products in which all the ingredients are organic (with the exception of water and salt) are the only ones labeled "100% organic"; those with at least 95% organically produced ingredients can be labeled simply "organic." Only these two categories of foods can carry the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "organic" seal on the package. Products "made with organic ingredients" contain at least 70% organic ingredients -- but they can't carry the seal.
"Natural" simply means that the food appears very close to its natural state, has been minimally processed and has no artificial ingredients or added color.
Note that "organic," "natural" and "low-fat" foods can still be high in sugar and calories. Take a few minutes to read the nutrition facts label so you know the nutrients and calories per serving. Pricey fat-free cookies might have less fat per serving than the regular version, but they often have more sugar -- saving you few, if any, calories.
Susan Bowerman is a registered dietitian and assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.