No Fat, Sugar Free, GMO Free: What do These Claims Actually Mean?

September 03, 2015

Here are six common claims that might not represent what you think they do:

Front of package labeling can get very confusing. There are so many unregulated buzzwords that food marketers are taking advantage of to make their products more appealing. Most of these terms cannot be taken at face value, and as a consumer you need to always turn the package over and read the nutrition facts and ingredient list to be sure you are getting what you think you are. Here are six common claims that might not represent what you think they do: 

Fat Free: Fat free labeling is not always completely truthful! Products can be labeled fat free if there is less than ½ gram per labeled serving. So if you eat more than one serving, the fat is adding up, and you are probably getting more than you think!

Gluten free: Gluten-free foods must contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. Foods may be labeled “gluten-free” if they are inherently gluten free; or do not contain an ingredient that is: 1) a gluten-containing grain (e.g., spelt wheat); 2) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has not been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat flour); or 3) derived from a gluten-containing grain that has been processed to remove gluten (e.g., wheat starch), if the use of that ingredient results in the presence of 20 ppm or more gluten in the food. There are many foods labeled gluten-free that are naturally gluten-free, so don’t be fooled into thinking a product is healthy because it carries the claim.

Non GMO: The non-gmo label is not regulated by the FDA, so companies can make the claim if they believe it to be truthful. In order to qualify for the Non-GMO Project Verified label, a product has to be certified as containing ingredients with less than 1 percent genetic modification. Products applying for the label are all audited by a third party that certifies products as not containing GMOs, the same company is also able to suggest other ingredient suppliers if an ingredient comes up as a potential GMO. Keep in mind that organic foods and ingredients are by definition non-gmo.

Whole Grains: The FDA doesn’t have a strict definition for Whole Grains, so look for the whole grains stamp developed by the nonprofit Whole Grains Council. The stamp will specify exactly how much of the product is made up of whole grains.

May Contain: As it relates to potential allergens, the use of advisory labeling i.e., “may contain,” “processed in a facility that also processes,” or “made on equipment with,” is voluntary and optional for manufacturers. There are no laws governing or requiring these statements, so they may or may not indicate if a product contains a specific allergen.  According to the FDA’s guidance to the food industry on this issue, advisory labels “should not be used as a substitute for adhering to current good manufacturing practices and must be truthful and not misleading.” If you are unsure whether or not a product could be contaminated, you should call the manufacturer to ask about their ingredients and manufacturing practices.

No Sugar: A food that does not contain sugar per se may contain any number of low and no-calorie sweeteners. Unless the product is specifically labeled “unsweetened,” the only way to know whether a product is sweetened, and with what, is to read the ingredient list. Similar to “fat free,” If a serving contains less than 0.5 gram of sugars, the weight can be expressed as zero.