Understanding Nutritional Claims

Navigating the sea of nutritional claims on food packaging can feel like deciphering a complex code. In this section, we’ll demystify these claims to help you understand what they truly mean and assess the real nutritional value of foods.

The following is geared toward the US, the EU is mentioned below.

Low-Fat, Reduced-Fat, and Fat-Free

  • Low-Fat: 3 grams of fat or less per serving, but may have added sugar or sodium.
  • Reduced-Fat: At least 25% less fat than the standard version, but the standard might have been high in fat.
  • Fat-Free: Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, but often high in sugar and artificial ingredients.

Tip: Check for added ingredients in low-fat products.

Whole Grain and Multigrain

  • Whole Grain: All parts of the grain kernel are used, providing fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Multigrain: More than one type of grain is used, but they may not all be whole grains.

Tip: Look for “100% whole grain” and check the ingredients list.


  • Natural: No artificial ingredients, colors, or preservatives, but doesn’t address pesticide use, GMOs, or animal welfare.

Tip: Focus on the ingredient list rather than the “natural” label.


  • Organic: Grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or GMOs; animal products are raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.

Tip: Prioritize organic for items with higher pesticide residues, balancing with budget and availability.


  • Gluten-Free: No gluten, essential for celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Tip: Focus on overall nutritional quality, not just the gluten-free claim.

No Added Sugar and Sugar-Free

  • No Added Sugar: No extra sugar added, but may contain natural sugars or other sweeteners.
  • Sugar-Free: Less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving, but may contain artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols.

Tip: Check total sugar content and ingredients when choosing these products.

Additional Nutritional Claims

  • Serving Sizes: Pay attention to serving sizes to understand the real quantity of consumption.
  • Ingredient List Order: Ingredients are listed by quantity, so the first few are the most prominent.
  • “Low-Calorie” and “Reduced-Calorie” Claims: May be low in calories but not necessarily nutritious.
  • “High in” and “Source of” Claims: Indicates a good source of specific nutrients but check the overall profile.
  • “Fortified” and “Enriched”: Nutrients have been added, often indicating processing.
  • “Cholesterol-Free” and “Trans Fat-Free”: Important for understanding heart health impacts.
  • “Non-GMO” Labels: Increasingly important for consumers but not directly linked to nutritional value.

Food packaging between the United States and the European Union (EU).

Here’s a general overview of how these claims compare:

  1. Low-Fat, Reduced-Fat, and Fat-Free:
  • US: As described, the US has specific definitions for these terms based on fat content per serving.
  • EU: Similar definitions exist in the EU. A “low-fat” claim means 3g of fat or less per 100g for solids or 1.5g of fat per 100ml for liquids. “Fat-free” means no more than 0.5g of fat per 100g/ml.
  1. Whole Grain and Multigrain:
  • US: No legal definition for whole grains. The term “whole grain” can be used if all parts of the grain kernel are present.
  • EU: The EU also lacks a specific legal definition for whole grains, but the term implies the use of the entire grain. Multigrain products in the EU similarly indicate the presence of more than one type of grain.
  1. Natural:
  • US: Defined loosely; mainly means no artificial ingredients, colors, or preservatives.
  • EU: The term “natural” isn’t legally defined in the EU either, leading to potential variability in its use. However, EU regulations on labeling require that food labels not be misleading about the product’s characteristics.
  1. Organic:
  • US: Strictly regulated by the USDA. Organic foods must meet specific standards, including no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.
  • EU: Similarly strict. The EU organic logo can only be used on products that have been produced to strict ecological and animal welfare standards, as per EU regulations.
  1. Gluten-Free:
  • US: Means the product contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
  • EU: The same threshold applies. A product labeled gluten-free in the EU also must not exceed 20 ppm of gluten.
  1. No Added Sugar and Sugar-Free:
  • US: “No added sugar” implies no sugar added during processing, while “sugar-free” typically means less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving.
  • EU: “No added sugar” in the EU also means that no sugar or sweetening agent is added, and “sugar-free” usually means the product contains no more than 0.5g of sugars per 100g/ml.

In both regions, understanding the context of these claims is crucial for consumers, especially those following specific diets like the Mediterranean diet. While there are similarities in the labeling standards, there are also differences in regulatory approaches and enforcement. Consumers in both the US and the EU need to be vigilant and informed about these labels to make healthy choices that align with their dietary preferences.

Always look beyond the fancy claims on the front of the package and read the ingredients list and nutrition facts. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, so the less packaging and marketing a food item needs, the more likely it aligns with this diet’s principles.

In the next lesson, we’ll look at creating balanced meals.