"Diet," "light," and "lite" are a few of the words that stand out with fluorescent colors on many food labels. But do we really know what they mean?
The Texas Heart Institute, in its guide “14 Simple Ways to Reduce Saturated Fat” says: “Do not be misled by terms like "light" and "lite" that are often used to indicate that a product is low in calories. Frequently, these terms don’t have any scientific support.”
Different studies about consumers’ attitudes have shown that the general population doesn’t know the meaning of these words when displayed on food labels. Thus, they are usually misunderstood and tend to create false expectations of food products’ characteristics. Learning to recognize the differences between these terms will help you make good purchasing choices, and consequently will help you to eat healthier overall.
A “diet” product is different from a non-diet item in that it may have a specific nutrient composition or is processed in a certain way. Diet items are usually targeting a specific nutritional objective, as indicated on the label, for example, low-sodium foods. Therefore, “diet” doesn’t necessarily mean the food item is low in calories.
On the other hand, “light” is a term used to designate products that have less than 30% of its original calories. “Light” and diet foods were massively introduced in the market at the beginning of the 1980s, when sugar was first replaced by saccharine and cyclamate (sugar substitutes) in weight-loss products.
The following list was created by the nutrition and food division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide guidance to consumers on terms related to low-calorie products:
- Calorie Free Food: the product contains less than 4 calories per serving. For example, light sodas and some artificial sweeteners.
- Low Calorie Food: each serving contains no more than 40 calories.
- Light Food: a product that contains 30% less calories than the regular or non-modified version. For example, light marmalade.
- Sugar Free Food: a serving contains less than 5 grams of sugar or sucrose. Other sugars, such as lactose, fructose, and others, must also be considered. For example, diet chocolate or chocolate for diabetics.
- Fat Free Food: a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of total fat. For example, fat-free yogurts (0% fat).
- Low Fat Food: a serving contains 3 grams or less of fat. For example, white cheese.
- Saturated Fat Free Food: a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of saturated fat and less than 0.5 grams of trans fatty acids. For example, cereal bars.
- Cholesterol Free Food: a serving contains less than 2 milligrams of cholesterol. For example, cholesterol-free margarine.
- Low Cholesterol Food: each serving contains 20 milligrams or less of cholesterol. For example, light butter.
- Low Sodium Food: each serving contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium. For example, low sodium bread or crackers.
- Fortified Food: more than 10% of the daily recommendation per serving of a specific nutrient has been added to the product. For example, milk fortified with calcium.
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