Label Lesson — Can Foods Be Sugar and Calorie Free?

by | Oct 11, 2021 | Exercise

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There are three major categories of nutrient content claims, and we’re going to talk about two of them in this article. To understand the categories, it is important to understand the difference between a food, an ingredient, and a nutrient.

In addition to the information on the nutrition facts label, the Food and Drug Administration also regulates nutrition-related claims that food manufacturers can place elsewhere on the package. One category of such claims is called a nutrient content claim, which describes the level of a specific nutrient in a food product. While these can be helpful in identifying specific attributes of a food, they cannot always be taken at face value.

There are three major categories of nutrient content claims, and we’re going to talk about two of them in this article. To understand the categories, it is important to understand the difference between a food, an ingredient, and a nutrient.

food is what you’re buying and what you actually eat. For example, breakfast cereal.

An ingredient is something that is part of the food or has been added to the food. For example, oat bran.

nutrient is a specific substance that influences your body’s health. For example, fiber.

Now, on to two types of nutrient claims:

  1. An expressed nutrient claim is a statement about the level of a nutrient in a food, such as “low-fat,” “high-fiber,” or “contains Vitamin C.”
  2. An implied nutrient claim describes the food or an ingredient in a manner that suggests a certain nutrient is present or absent in a certain amount, without naming the nutrient. For example:

“High in oat bran” suggests that the product contains fiber

“Made with 100% whole grain oats” suggests the product has the vitamins found in whole grains

The FDA has a long list of rules [1] about what manufacturers may nor may not state when making expressed or implied nutrient claims. One thing you may want to know is that when talking about calories and sugar in foods, zero doesn’t mean zero.

  • Calories: “Calorie free,” “no calories,” and “zero calories” foods can contain 5 calories or less per typical serving amount.  Foods labeled as “low calorie,” “few calories,” AND “low source of calories” can have up to 40 calories per serving.
  • Sugar: “Sugar free” “no sugar” and “zero sugar” foods can contain as much as 0.5 grams of sugar per typical serving (for reference, one teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams).

Individuals may decide that it’s “safe” to eat much more than the typical serving of these foods, thinking they are ingesting no sugar or no calories, leading to unintended excess sugar and calorie consumption.

Nutrient content claims are a way for food manufacturers to focus your attention on something they believe will persuade you to consume their product, while drawing your attention away from things they’d rather you not think about. Even when their nutrient content claims are true, it does not mean the food product as a whole is a wise health choice for an individual.

When you’re determining if a food product is a healthy choice, it is important to evaluate the whole product. And as you do, keep in mind that one of the most important things to know about how a food might impact your body’s health—which is to say, the degree to which is has been processed—is almost never seen on a label. That’s something you’ll have to determine for yourself.

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance


The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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