Food labels: fat-free or guilt-free?

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Friday, 28 November 2008.
Tagged: cholesterol, high cholesterol, label, low fat, monosodium glutamate, MSG, preservatives, salt, sugar

Food labels: fat-free or guilt-free?

What do those brightly-coloured words that scream "fat-free" or "light" at you at the supermarket really mean? And what about "no cholesterol" or "high fibre" on the label? Some manufacturers make claims that are designed to attract your attention and make you choose their product over another. But take care! They don't always mean what you think they do and often emphasise one aspect (like low-fat) over another (like salt or sugar).

Here are the official guidelines which tell you what those nutrition claims really mean.

97% fat-free

Label_example_fat_free_stockThis really means that the food contains 3 per cent fat, but saying it the other way around makes it sound healthier for you!

Only low-fat foods with 3 per cent fat or less can make this claim - see next item. Technically only foods that are 97 per cent, 98 per cent and 99 per cent fat-free can make this claim.

What's low-fat and is it the same for liquids and solids?

To claim it's low in fat, a food must contain less than 3 per cent fat for solid foods (those measured in grams) and less than 1.5 per cent for liquid foods (those measured in mls).
Examples: liquid stock, low-fat yoghurt (3 per cent), low-fat milk (1.5 per cent).


For a food to claim that it's "fat-free" it must have less than 0.15 per cent fat. This is usually a red-herring. It's put on foods that never had any fat anyway like confectionery, to draw your attention away from the amount of sugar it contains.
Examples: boiled sweets, marshmallows, gelato, sorbet, ice blocks, yoghurts, salad dressings.

Light or Lite

"Light" doesn't necessarily mean that the product is low in fat or kilojoules. Check the characteristic being "lightened", for example:

  • light potato crisps are thinly sliced and lightly salted (but may still have the same amount of fat) and just because they're thinly sliced doesn't make any difference if you still eat the whole pack!
  • light beer is low in alcohol
  • light olive oil has a blander flavour and lighter colour but the same fat and kilojoules as regular olive oil
  • light cheese has less fat and salt than the usual cheese but may be still high in fat
  • light margarine (spread) has less fat.

"Light" or "lite" products generally contain 25 or 30 per cent less fat than the regular product. Some - like yoghurts, dairy desserts, milks and margarine spreads - offer genuine reductions in fat and kilojoules without compromising taste and texture and are valuable foods.

They save you kilojoules and help you shed weight. Light beer can help you keep your alcohol intake within the recommended limits. But not always.  Download my Light Foods eReport to find out which are helpful and which are of no benefit for weight loss.
Examples: light milk, light peanut butter, light cheese, light cream, light sour cream, light ice cream, light coconut cream.

Vegetable oil

Don't be fooled into thinking this means an unsaturated vegetable oil such as canola, olive, soya bean, sunola or cottonseed oil. The words "vegetable oil" usually means palm oil, a tropical oil with 50 per cent saturated fat, which is widely used by the food industry to fry fast foods and snack foods.

Like all oils, it has no cholesterol but is high in saturated fat and not recommended as part of a healthy diet. "Vegetable oil" can also mean a hydrogenated (hardened and therefore saturated) vegetable oil. Read the label carefully.

Cholesterol-free or No Cholesterol

These do not mean NO FAT. Many foods such as oils can be free of cholesterol (technically under 3mg per 100g) but remain high in fat. All plant-derived products are free of cholesterol anyway. Stop worrying about dietary cholesterol, it is saturated fat that matters most.
Examples: many oils, margarine, avocado, snack foods, yoghurt, muesli bars.


Baked not fried

This claim often appears on snack foods and implies that the food is low in fat. For some snacks, like pretzels, this is true (i.e. they have less than 3 per cent fat) but for others, like biscuit snacks, it means they are lower in fat (around 25 per cent less) but not necessarily low in fat.
"Baked not fried" sounds healthier but still could have as much fat as fried items so check the label. What's more, check to see how much of the fat is saturated!

Examples: snack foods (pretzels) and biscuit snacks (Shapes, rice crackers), rice snacks (Sakata).

No added chemicals

This is a somewhat meaningless term as all food is composed of "chemicals". But it translates to mean something more natural and less processed and would be better served by saying "No artificial colours, flavours or preservatives".

No artificial colours or flavours

This is a key selling point with consumers but is often over-used and put on food labels where colours and flavours are not permitted anyway e.g. breads and breakfast cereals which are not permitted to contain artificial colours and flavours: they can still contain natural colours (like beta-carotene or caramel) or flavours and these will be stated on the ingredient list.

Examples: bread, cereals, muesli bars, custard, canned vegetables, canned tomatoes, pasta, confectionery without artificial colours.

No preservatives

Label_Custard_No_preservativesUsually this claim lets you know that no chemical preservatives are present although other methods of preservation - like pasteurisation or vacuum-sealing - may have been used.

Because consumers are so fearful of additives, this term often appears on food packs as "reassurance", even if preservatives are not permitted in that class of foods.



In theory, this claim is misleading as there are many sources of natural glutamates which may be present in many foods, especially protein foods. "No added MSG" is more realistic, but does not solve the problem of how to avoid glutamate if you need to. Mushrooms, cheese, tomatoes and meat are all rich in natural glutamates, which contribute to flavour.
Examples: soups, gravies, cooking sauces, noodles, Asian flavour bases.

No added sugar/Sugar-free

Label_No_added_sugarThese products must not contain any added sugar but may contain their own natural sugars, say from fruit (fructose) or milk (lactose).
Examples: juices, diet soft drinks, boiled sweets.


Low-salt foods must contain no more than 120mg of sodium per 100g. Generally these are unsalted products like unsalted butter or margarine.
Examples: low-salt canned tomatoes, low-salt baked beans, low-salt margarine

No added sugar

This applies to foods which do not contain added cane sugar or any honey, glucose, fructose, malt, malt extract or maltose - all these are just as high in natural sugars as cane sugar and provide similar kilojoules. Pear juice concentrate is often used to sweeten products but has as many kilojoules as ordinary sugar.
Examples: fruit juice, fruit leather, canned fruit.


High in fibre

The food must contain at least 3 grams of fibre per serve.
Examples: wholegrain breakfast cereals, bran breakfast cereals, oats, multigrain breads, baked beans.


How low is low?

If you're trying to cut back on fat, salt and sugar and eat plenty of fibre, here's an easy guide to what figures you should check out on the nutrition information panel:

What's low, what's high
Nutrient How much?
Fat 3 grams per 100 grams (3 per cent ) or less
Sugars 20 grams per 100 grams (20 per cent) or less
Sodium 120 milligrams or less per 100 grams
Fibre 3 grams per serve or more

The bottom line

Don't be taken in by sometimes-meaningless claims - READ THE LABEL for yourself!