Nutrition labels: Deciphering health claims

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Nutrition labels: Deciphering health claims

"Low fat" and "high fiber" are just two examples of the many health claims splashed across the front of food packages. Do these claims influence your buying decisions? Do you rely on them? Or do you depend more on nutrition labels? If you're like other shoppers, you're probably confused. Surveys show that most people find front-of-package claims and nutrition labels more confusing than useful.

Indeed, some claims are downright deceptive. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about dozens of food products with misleading or false information on their packages.

So how can you be a smart shopper? Heed the maxim, "Buyer beware." Make sure you evaluate any health-claim hype against the more detailed nutrition label, also called the Nutrition Facts panel, typically found on the back of packages.

Types of health claims

The FDA allows companies to make three types of health-related claims on food packages:

  • Nutrient-content claims
  • Health claims
  • Qualified health claims

Nutrient-content claims

This is a claim that describes the amount of a nutrient in the food. For example, to use the claim "good source," a food must contain 10 to 19 percent of the Daily Value (DV). A food can claim to be "high" in a nutrient if it contains at least 20 percent of the DV.

The term "light" is another example of a nutrient-content claim. A food labeled as "light" must have fewer calories or less fat compared with a representative sample of the same food. When manufacturers use claims such as "light," "reduced," "less," "fewer," "more" or "added," they must also include the following information:

  • The percentage or fraction by which the food has been modified
  • The reference, or comparison, food
  • The amount of nutrient in the labeled food and in the comparison food

So, for example, the wording on a light cheese cake would need to be as follows: "Has 1/3 fewer calories and 50 percent less fat than our regular cheese cake."

Health claims

Health claims go a step further and establish a connection between the presence or amount of a nutrient in the food and a disease or health problem. Health claims can only talk about reducing the risk of disease; they can't claim to diagnosis, treat or cure a disease.

Here's an example of a health claim: "Three grams of soluble fiber from oatmeal daily in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease. This cereal has 2 grams per serving."

Health claims require a high level of scientific proof and must be approved by the FDA. All publicly available evidence must support the food-disease relationship claimed. In addition, there must be significant agreement among experts that the relationship is valid.

Qualified health claims

Qualified health claims are similar to health claims, but they don't have to meet the same level of scientific proof. Qualified health claims may be used when there's emerging evidence that a nutrient reduces the risk of disease, but the evidence isn't sufficient to meet the high level required for a health claim.

Qualifying language must be included as part of the claim and must make it clear that the evidence supporting the claim is limited.

Here's an example of a qualified health claim: "Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces a day of walnuts, as part of a low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."

When labels mislead

In 2009 the FDA sent an open letter to food companies urging companies to review their claims on packages to ensure that they were in compliance with FDA regulations. The following year, the FDA sent warning letters about false or misleading nutrition information on dozens of foods, including juices, teas, ice creams, baby foods, olive oil, salad dressings and vegetable shortening.

Here are just two examples of the violations:

Claim: "Extra light olive oil"
Violation: The term "light" is misleading because the fat content is not reduced by 50 percent compared with an appropriate reference food. (The manufacturer subsequently altered the label to say "extra light tasting olive oil.")

Claim: "0 grams trans fat"
Violation: The products cited don't have disclosure statements alerting consumers that the products have significant levels of saturated and total fat.

The future for nutrition labels

The FDA is expected to continue its scrutiny of food labeling, particularly front-of-package claims — which are intended to catch a hurried shopper's attention but don't provide the full nutritional picture. In addition, the FDA has said it will develop new guidance about calorie and nutrient labeling and will look for innovative ways to give consumers the information they need to make healthy dietary choices.

That's good news. In the meantime, though, don't rely on front-of-package claims. Instead, get all the facts by reading the nutrition label, which can be found on the back or side of food packages.

Last Updated: 2010-08-24
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