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Food Labels 101

CDKitchen Cooking Columnist Pamela Chester
About the author: Pamela Chester
Mom of two; graduate French Culinary Institute; kids cooking program instructor; Master's degree in food studies. Creates kid friendly foods and loves her slow cooker.
Lately at the market, I can’t help but notice there are more and more labels on the front and sides of the food packages in addition to the regular nutrition facts. I just bought some Japanese style Panko breadcrumbs that have the initials “LS” and “LF” on them and it got me thinking.

Usually, when I see an L beginning to an acronym, it is one of those endless variations on LOL (laughing out loud) that you see tossed around on e-mails and Facebook. I’ll probably never learn the latest and greatest of those terms, but when it comes to food labels, it seems a little more useful to learn the jargon you might encounter on each grocery shopping trip.

With everyone’s mind set on healthy eating in the New Year, I thought it might be a good time to offer a short primer on food labels. In the case of those breadcrumbs, LS stands for Low Sodium and LF stands for Low Fat. But there are many, many more labels out there that may help guide your family to healthier eating, or just make it easier to find the foods you need to fit any family dietary restrictions or preferences.

Some of these labels are overseen by government regulation and have precise definitions (such as USDA organic) while others are used as marketing tools (like All Natural). Because food labels vary so much and can be confusing, you almost need a key to decipher all of them. So below are some of the more commonly used labels and their meaning:

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Low Calorie: Product must contain less than 40 calories per serving.

Low Fat: Must contain fewer than 3 grams of fat per serving.

Low Sodium: Must contain 140 grams or less of sodium per serving.

Fat Free or Calorie Free (or Zero): Product must contain less than 0.5g of fat per serving.

Trans Fat Free: Product must contain less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving.

Reduced Fat: This term can be used my manufacturers when comparing a reduced fat item to a regular product; the reduced fat item must contain 25% fewer or 2 grams less fat per serving than the referenced food. (not necessarily LOW in fat or calories)

Sugar Free: Product must be free of sugar.

High Fiber: Must contain 5 grams of fiber per serving; if labeled “Good source of Fiber,” must contain 2.5 to 4.9 grams of fiber per serving.

Healthy: The FDA requires foods with this label to be low in fat, low in saturated fat and contain a limited amount of sodium (480 or fewer milligrams) and cholesterol (60 or fewer milligrams). Foods such as fruits, vegetables and cereals are exempt from these guidelines.

Antioxidants: The food must contain 20% or more of the RDI (recommended daily intake) per serving. For a “good antioxidant source” claim, the food has to contain between 10% to 19% of the RDI per serving. (Many products already contain high antioxidants, but manufacturers are calling more attention to it due to recent awareness of antioxidant’s health benefits.)

USDA Organic: Food is made with close to 100% organic ingredients and must comply with federal regulations for production and handling that prohibit the use of pesticides, antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and genetic engineering.

Gluten Free: Item contains no gluten, a product found in wheat and other grains. (People who have celiac disease or wheat allergy must avoid gluten)

Fresh: FDA regulated term meaning food in its raw state that has never been frozen or warmed, and contains no preservatives.

Natural: With regards to meat, natural refers to meat in its natural state, with no additives or preservatives. In regards to packaged food such as cereal, “natural” or “all natural” is a marketing term and there is no regulation around it. 100% natural refers to food that contains no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives and no synthetic ingredients.

Hopefully the above guide will shed a little light on all the different labels you see in the market. To your family’s good health in the New Year!
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