Are “Low or No” Fat, Sugar or Sodium Foods Healthy? Maybe…Maybe not!

Research published this week in the Journal of Academic Nutrition and Dietetics on foods labeled “low or no” fat, sugar or sodium found the labeling often misleading as these claims do not necessarily mean the product is healthier. Further, it isn’t clear what the ‘low or no‘ claims are based on – “low or no” compared to the regular version of the product or compared to other types of similar foods?

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Link to podcast of study results:

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Are you buying low fat, low sugar or low sodium versions of foods thinking they are healthier than the “regular” version?  As this research suggests, you may want to turn the package over and read the nutrition label. What you find may surprise you.

Sometimes the low fat versions have more sodium or sugar than the regular versions to compensate for the lack of flavor from less fat. In fact, a study published in 2016 comparing the sugar content of low fat vs regular fat versions of the same food, found the sugar content was higher in all the low fat versions -not healthier at all.

As far as sodium goes, low sodium means there is less than 140 mg of sodium per serving.    Be careful to read the food label to find out the serving size. A low sodium food is only low sodium if you eat one serving. Take low sodium deli turkey, for example. If you eat one serving, in this case 1 slice, it has 130 mg of sodium. A sandwich made with 4 slices has 540 mg of sodium – not so low sodium any more.

Foods labeled unsalted or no sodium added do not mean the food is low sodium or sodium free.  It means extra salt wasn’t added. A good example of this is no salt added pretzels.  There is still salt /sodium in the pretzel itself, but no salt was added to the outside of the pretzel.

Foods labeled less or reduced sodium are not low sodium. They just contain 25% less sodium than their original counterparts and still can have a hefty dose of sodium. Take low sodium soy sauce, for example. It has about 530 mg of sodium per tablespoon. True, that is less than the 890 mg of sodium in regular soy sauce, but still a lot. Keep in mind that one teaspoon of table salt has 2300 mg of sodium or about the amount in 2 ½ tablespoons of low sodium soy sauce. While we wouldn’t dip our sushi into a bowl of salt, we think nothing of dipping it into a bowl of soy sauce.

Here’s what the different labels mean as defined in the 2013 Food and Drug Administration food labeling guidelines:


  • Salt or sodium free: less than 5 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Very low sodium: 35 milligrams or less of sodium per serving
  • Low-sodium: less than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving
  • Reduced or less sodium: at least 25 percent less sodium per serving than comparable food.


  • Sugar Free: Less than 0.5 grams sugars per serving
  • Low sugar: not used
  • Reduced or less sugar: at least 25% less sugars per serving than a comparable food


  • Fat free: less than 0.5 grams per labeled serving labeled serving Contains no ingredient that is fat or understood to contain fat.
  • Low fat: 3 grams or less per serving
  • Reduced or less fat: at least 25% less fat per serving than a comparable food that is not low fat

For more information:

Food and Drug Administration –

Food Labeling Guidelines

Sodium in your diet



Joanna Hayden, PhD, CHES is the principal of Associates for Health Education and Behavior, LLC, in Sparta, a practice focused on improving health through education. Her office offers individual and group health education, and individual health behavior change guidance.  For more information please see  To contact Dr. Hayden, email her

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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