Why Does the Label On My Cream Cheese Package Say It Contains No Calcium?

If you’ll pardon the double negative, cream cheese doesn’t contain no calcium. In the jabberwocky world of food labeling, zero is not the same as none.

When you come right down to it, there’s no such thing as a zero amount of anything. All anyone can say is that the amount of something is too small to be detected by whatever detection method is being used. If you can’t find any of a certain substance, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a couple of zillion molecules of it lurking somewhere below your sensitivity threshold.

With that fundamental principle in mind, the FDA was faced with the problem of what upper limits to place on certain ingredients before allowing food producers to claim in the labels’ Nutrition Facts chart that a food contains “none” or “0 percent,” or is “not a significant source” of a given nutrient. It wasn’t an easy task, especially for such loaded questions as when a food may claim to be

“fat-free.” (I’m always amused when a label says “97 percent fat-free” instead of “3 percent fat.”)

Cream cheese is a particularly interesting case, because its calcium content falls right smack on the edge of “zero.”

First of all, being made as it is from cream or a blend of milk and cream, the cheese contains less calcium than you might think. The surprising reason for this is that cream contains substantially less calcium than an equal weight of milk.

In the same 100 grams, whole milk contains an average of 119 milligrams of calcium, whereas heavy cream contains only 65. That’s because milk is less fatty and more watery than cream, and most of the calcium resides in the watery parts. It may therefore be left largely behind in the watery whey when the cheese curds are coagulated. That’s especially true of cream cheese, whose whey is relatively acidic (Techspeak: pH 4.6–4.7) and can therefore retain more calcium.

As a result, cream cheese winds up with only 23 milligrams of calcium per ounce compared, for example, with the 147 milligrams in an ounce of mozzarella. Even 23 milligrams is still some calcium, of course, not none. So how come it’s listed on the label as “0 percent”?

Pay attention, now, because here’s where it gets a bit complicated. The percentage of a nutrient that’s listed in the Nutrition Facts chart is not the percentage of that nutrient in the product; it’s the percentage of the Reference Daily Intake or RDI for that nutrient. The RDI, which used to be called the Recommended Daily Allowance or RDA and now often appears on the labels as Percent Daily Value or % DV (got it?), is the percentage of a person’s recommended daily intake of that nutrient that each serving provides.

For example, according to the label, a two-tablespoon (32-gram) serving of Jif Creamy Peanut Butter supplies 25 percent of your daily value for fat. But that 32-gram serving contains 16 grams of fat, so the product is actually 50 percent fat.

Now back to the cream cheese. The RDI for calcium is a whopping 1,000 milligrams, so the 23 milligrams of calcium in an ounce of cream cheese is only about 2 percent of the RDI. And guess what? The FDA permits an amount of 2 percent or less per serving to be listed as “0 percent.” The moral of the story:

If Little Miss Muffet had sat on her tuffet

Eating just curds, no whey,

She’d become an old crone,

Quite weak in the bone,

All her calcium wasted away.