The House yesterday approved legislation that for the first time would require detailed nutritional information to be printed on food labels.

The measure, approved on a voice vote, would require food manufacturers to include on their labels information to help health-conscious consumers more easily determine such things as the cholesterol and fat contents of foods. It would replace an existing, mostly voluntary system of labeling guidelines that has resulted in growing consumer confusion as manufacturers have stepped up promotion of various food products as health-enhancing.

In addition, the bill sponsored by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) would make it more difficult for food manufacturers to make broad health claims on their labels unless the claims are backed by the federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS). Terms such as "low salt" or "low in cholesterol" could not be used unless they are consistent with definitions issued by HHS.

Earlier this month, HHS proposed a set of uniform definitions for such previously confusing terms as "cholesterol-free." Under Waxman's bill, food manufacturers would also be barred from using terms that have not been defined by HHS, a provision designed to prevent the use of new, creative terms. Manufacturers would also be barred from claiming that a food is free of an unpopular nutrient such as cholesterol if that nutrient is not normally present in the item.

The legislation requires food-product labels to contain information on: serving size, number of servings per container, number of calories per serving and number of calories from fats, as well as the amounts of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates, sugars, dietary fiber and total protein.

Similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), is awaiting Senate action.