Sugar-free, low-fat claims could be misleading. Here’s how to decode food labels.


No-fat or no-sugar, low-fat, low-cholesterol or reduced-salt on food packaging may make you feel you are making healthy choices, but the claims rarely reflect the actual nutritional quality of the food, shows a new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“In many cases, foods containing low-sugar, low-fat or low-salt claims had a worse nutritional profile than those without claims,” explained lead investigator Lindsey Smith Taillie, a research assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study, which looked at data from more than 80 million food and beverage purchases in the US over five years, found that 13% of food and 35% of beverage purchases had a low-content claim (including no, free, low or reduced) and that low-fat was the most common claim, followed by low-calorie, low-sugar and low-sodium. “Products high in calories, sodium, sugar or fat may be more likely to have low- or no-content claims,” said Taillie.

It’s all relative

You assume reduced means a healthier product, but what the label means is that product has reduced amounts of an ingredient in reference to the original product. For example, a three-cookie serving of reduced-fat Oreos contains 4.5 grams of fat compared to 7 grams in a serving of full-fat Oreos, but both contain 14 grams of sugar per serving, which doesn’t make the low-fat version is “healthy.”

Chocolate low-fat milk may have lower fat content but it is higher in sugar relative to plain milk and higher in sugar and fat relative to other drinks.

Portions matter

Foods with a “low” claim are equally confusing, but for different reasons. The FDA allows a low-fat label on food if that food has less than three grams per reference amount customarily consumed (RACC), which varies across product categories. For example, the RACC for brownies is 40 grams, whereas the RACC for cheesecake is 125 grams.

“A low-fat brownie could have three grams of fat per 40 grams, whereas a low-fat cheesecake” would have to have three grams of fat per 125 grams. So if a consumer were trying to find a lower-fat option for a dessert, the low-fat brownie would have relatively higher fat than the low-fat cheesecake.”

Food labels: Reading between the lines

What it says: Contains no sugar or artificial sweeteners

What it means: Contains no sucrose, but could have fructose, dextrose, dextrine, malitol and high fructose corn syrup

What it should say: Contains no added natural or artificial sweeteners

What it says: Cholesterol free

What it means: Has no cholesterol but may be full of artery blocking trans fats and calorie-dense fats

What it should say: Should specify type of fats, including levels of trans fats

What it says: Low fat, low sugar, low salt

What it means: Amount of unhealthy ingredient is lower relative to the original product.

What it should say: Should specify among of sugar, fat and salt

What it says: Edible oil/ vegetable oil/ partially hydrogenated oil or fats

What it means: All are euphemisms for trans fats, which contribute to ‘bad’ cholesterol and lowers cholesterol

What it say: Contains trans fat or tans fatty acids; must mention source of oil

What it says: 100 percent natural

What it means: It may be high in sugar, sodium and fats, including trans fats; may even have permissible artificial colouring and preservatives

What it should say: Organic, but only with certification.

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