The FDA permits food manufacturers to label their products with terms such as “free,” “reduced,” or “low” to describe how much or little of a certain nutrient is in a product. But what do these terms mean? Is reduced fat cream cheese a wise choice to put on my bagel? Here are some legal definitions for common nutrient content claims.
To use the term “free” pertaining to sugar or fat, the food must provide less than 0.5g per serving. So lets just say a serving of fat free cottage cheese is 1 ounce, but when you eat it for breakfast you spoon in closer to 4 ounces. It is a legal claim by the manufacturer that you are eating fat free cottage cheese when in fact you are consuming 2g in your small bowl. This concept is incredibly scary when it comes to the dangerous trans fats that many of the processed foods we consume contain.
The term “reduced” is just as big a concern as the term “free.” For a product to be considered reduced it simply must contain 25% less of the nutrient per serving than the reference food. For example, a serving of ice cream with 20g of fat per serving for the reference item may contain up to 15g of fat per serving. To return to the portioning issue, if you are someone who typically over portions what is stated on the package, chances are you are consuming much more of a nutrient you were trying to cut back on.
In trying to lead a healthy lifestyle one needs to remember that just because a package touts “light” or “free” it is not necessarily good for you. It just as well can be the exact same product just labeled under a different portion size as well. My one half ounce serving of light ranch dressing really is half the fat and calories of my 1-ounce serving regular ranch dressing. Even if it is light, it does not mean you can have more.