Fitness Fact: The FDA does not evaluate nor regulate terms that are placed on labels outside of the nutrition facts panel.


Many of your well-intentioned clients, athletes and patients are making what they believe to be healthy choices at the grocery store, but instead, they are being sabotaged by the inconsistencies and the often ambiguous labeling regulations. Deciphering food labels and health claims is not for amateurs anymore. It has become an exercise in understanding legal rhetoric. Today, "whole grain" doesn't mean whole grain; "93% lean ground beef" isn't 93% lean by calories, and the definition of "free-range" is far from what you may envision.


Food Labeling Regulations

            Back in 1989, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) commissioned the National Academy of ciences-Institute of Medicine (NAS-IOM) to write a background report on the current state of food labeling as well as make recommendations for revising such standards. However, the NAS-IOM's recommended revised labeling regulations did not withstand the scrutiny of industry lobbying groups. According to Jeff Nadelman, a former lobbyist for the very powerful Grocery Manufacturers Association, "The goal of every food industry association is to maintain the status quo, to delay, to fight, to lobby and to obscure the facts so that manufacturers can reposition their products to compete for consumer demand." Present-day food labeling regulations are a composite of these opposing forces: NAS-IOM and the food industry.

            The FDA is responsible for regulating most food products, while the USDA is responsible for regulating the meat and poultry products. Each organization developed labeling requirements that are unique to its respective products and requirements. The National Labeling and Education Act, passed by Congress in 1990, required mandatory nutrition labeling to appear on most packaged foods that are regulated by the FDA. However, no such regulations have been passed requiring the USDA to make meat labels comparable to packaged food labels. In essence, this makes it very difficult for consumers to compare products. Prepackaged pizza with meat topping falls under USDA rules, while cheese pizza is labeled according to FDA rules. The following are some results of these convoluted laws.


Whole Grain

            The definition, "made with whole grain," does not specify an amount of whole grain the product must contain:


  • "Made with whole grain" means a product may contain either a little or a lot of whole grain a specified amount is not required.


  • "An excellent source of whole grain" means a product must contain at least 16 grams per serving or approximately nearly half of what most serving sizes are (30 to 55 grams). 


  • "A good source of whole grain" means there can be as little as eight grams per serving. Is this truly a good source when the product may be less than 50% whole grain? 


  • "Multigrain" is a mixture of grains that can be mostly refined with minimal nutritional value. 

                General Mills claims its new whole grain cereals are "made with whole grains." So, how do the newer cereals stack up against their older counterparts? By comparing older ingredient labels with the new ones, it is clear the only thing that changed is the label. Visit for more information about whole grains and where to find them in foods.


    Fat Free/Calorie Free

                Are those products that claim to be calorie and fat free truly free of calories and fat? If a serving size contains fewer than five calories per serving, it can be called "calorie free." And if a serving size contains one-half gram of fat or less, the product can be called "non-fat." For example, a can of PAM cooking spray that claims a third-of-a-second spray contains no calories or fat actually contains 1,638 calories and is 100% fat. The same can be said of Promise Ultra Fat Free, which is 100% fat. Moreover, this same regulation holds true for "trans fats." Many new products are not truly free of trans fats. For definitions of terms such as low, lite, lean, extra lean, high, good source and reduced, visit  for a little "lite" reading.


    Meat Industry Labeling

                The USDA labeling guidelines allow meat and poultry products to label fat content by volume or weight rather than by calories as do the FDA labeling regulations. In fact, 93% lean ground beef (7% fat by weight) is actually 45% fat by calories. And 97% lean pre-packaged meat is actually 18% fat by calories. For further details, please visit 


    Dairy Industry Labeling

                The dairy industry is also regulated by the USDA and falls under the same category as meat and poultry products. Milk labeled one percent fat is 18% fat by calories; milk labeled two percent fat is 36% fat by calories, and whole milk is almost 50% fat by calories.  

                By definition, the FDA's guideline of low fat is "a product containing three grams of fat or less." Therefore, under the USDA labeling guidelines, milk labeled two percent (containing five   grams of fat) could make the low-fat claim. However, in 1998, the FDA disallowed the use of low fat for two percent milk. The new term that is now used to replace low fat is reduced fat.



                The USDA is responsible for managing the National Organic Program, implemented in October 2002. By definition, organic farming avoids the use of most artificial inputs such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Also banned are the use of animal by-products, antibiotics and sewage sludge, among other practices. Any food product (except fish) using the word "organic" must be certified by an official USDA accredited certifier. So, "organic" food must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. And a "made with organic" label means a product must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. Products that contain fewer than 70% organic ingredients cannot bear the USDA Organic seal or display the word "organic" on the front of the package. However, there are exceptions to these rules. Farms and handling operations that sell less than $5,000 a year are exempt and can label their products organic but cannot use the USDA Organic seal. Also, grocery stores or restaurants do not have to be certified.


     Marketing Spin

                The FDA does not evaluate nor regulate terms that are placed on labels outside of the nutrition facts panel. The terms "net carbs," "impact carbs" and "non-impact carbs" have no legal or scientific definition. "These terms have been made up by food companies," says Wahida Karmally, Director of Nutrition at the Irving Center for Clinical Research at Columbia University. So why doesn't the FDA step in if there isn't any science behind these terms? Congress chartered the FDA to regulate the nutrition facts panel only. These new terms are outside of this boundary and do not violate any laws. The FDA can only take action if such terms can be shown to be harmful. For more details on these marketing terms, visit


                Many different, non-government logos, labeling and certification schemes now appear on products. Their abundance can be confusing, and their criteria and assessment standards are not always clear. It's easy to imagine free-range chickens running free in a beautiful field. Think again.


  • The definition of "free range" is regulated by the USDA and applies only to chickens.


  • The use of "free range" on beef is unregulated, and there is no standard definition of this term.


  • "Free range" requires that birds be given access to the outdoors, but what is not defined is the length of time per day. In other words, five minutes a day of open-air access could be adequate for manufacturers to use the "free-range" claim on a poultry product.


  • The term "free range" used on eggs is not regulated.


  • The USDA considers the term "antibiotic-free" on dairy and meat "un-approvable" and has banned its use. Producers can only say, "No antibiotics administered" or "Raised without antibiotics."


  • "Cruelty free" on cleaning and personal hygiene products implies no animal testing was done. The ingredients may have once been tested on animals or the company may have commissioned other labs to do the testing, but they, themselves, have not tested the finished product on animals.


  • Other meaningless or unverified terms are "natural," "no chemical," "no hormones," "nonpolluting," "nontoxic," "ozone-friendly" or "sensitivity tested." Visit from Consumers Union Guide for more details.


    The Educated Reader

                The goal of this article is NOT to have your clients, patients and athletes throw away their can of PAM spray or totally eliminate beef from their diets. The goal is to educate them, so they can make healthier, more informed choices. Understanding labeling regulations will help protect your clients from fraudulently being "cheated" out of their hard-earned calories.


    Dr. Jane Pentz is President of Lifestyle Management Associates. For more info, visit


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