We all want to slim down our waistlines these days, and for the most part people know that cutting back on fat and calories is the way to do it. Dieting shoppers and diners look to the food industry to provide great tasting food with “not so many” calories. Like any trend, the diet craze has paved the way for innovation in the industry. More than ever before we are looking at nutrition facts and asking for calorie counts, but some of us don’t even want to go that far. Claims like low fat, light, or healthy and their accompanying symbols make it easy for customers to make healthy choices without having to do the math themselves.
But what exactly do these claims mean? When you see low in fat, how low is it? The answer is complicated. It’s simple for packaged foods. The FDA has set criteria for making what they call “content claims” on food products sold in retail. These criteria indicate levels that a food’s nutrient profile must be under/over per portion size.
But what about restaurants and food services? The FDA has set similar criteria for what they call entrees and main dishes. However, this criteria is set per 100g, which I tend to think is a little misleading seeing as though there is no pre determined weight for a serving.
Other criteria have been developed specifically for healthy eating programs for restaurants. Most of these are very similar, and are based off of the USDA’s guidelines for a healthy adult diet. Marketing programs like Healthy Dining Finder help restaurants promote their healthier menu items. The Arizona State Health Department has also started a similar program to promote menu items that qualify by their very similar criteria.
Other companies make up their own claims and criteria. From what I have seen, claims are not regulated as much in foodservice as they are in retail. The FDA sets strict guidelines for making claims which are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission for retail items. Restaurants, on the other hand are held to the honor system.
Don’t disregard any claims that you see in the grocery store or in eateries; they are still a great way to help guide your healthy eating choices. Just stick to your instincts, if it sounds too good to be true….take a closer look.
Alyson Z. Mar, RD