You Should Know

November 2015 Issue

How to Find the Truth in Labeling Claims

Sift through the hype to find the true benefits of foods and supplements.

You’ve seen it: Health verbiage splashed across the front of packages, such as: “Supports the immune system!” or “Lowers cholesterol!” But can you really trust manufacturers to tell you the truth on their labels? Yes…and no.

The good news: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rules about what can and cannot be said on food and supplement labels, and companies caught breaking those rules will be in trouble. The bad news: While some claims need to be backed up by science, some don’t, and telling them apart can be tricky.

Three kinds of claims. The FDA divides claims into three types: Nutrient Content Claims, Health Claims, and Structure/Function Claims.

-Nutrient Content Claims (NCC). NCCs address the level of a nutrient in a food compared to the typical product. These statements are tightly regulated, so you can trust that words like low, high, less, more, light, reduced, and even healthy mean something. For example, potato chips that say they are “low sodium” must have a specific percentage less salt then the average chip. Supplements may use percentage claims, such as “40% omega-3 fatty acids, 10 mg per capsule”.

-Health Claims. Any claim that a food component can reduce the risk of a disease has to be backed up by research and approved by the FDA. If you see both a component and a disease mentioned in the same sentence, you’re looking at a health claim, and you should be able to trust it. For example, “adequate calcium throughout life may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.”

-Structure/Function Claims. If a claim doesn’t mention a specific disease or talk about the amount of a particular nutrient, it’s probably a structure/function claim. Manufacturers don’t have to get the FDA’s approval or show proof to use statements such as “calcium builds strong bones” and “antioxidants maintain cell integrity.”

-Dietary supplements treated differently. Supplement manufacturers don’t have to get FDA approval or provide any proof of their products’ safety or effectiveness upfront. This means that, while dietary supplement manufacturers are supposed to voluntarily follow the same labeling rules as foods, there is more room for false claims in the supplement aisle.

-Buyer beware. Remember that labels, like commercials, are part of a marketing campaign to get you to buy a product. (After all, the potato chip label that screams “low sodium!” never says “and high fat!”) While most claims on foods are pretty reliable, be wary of structure/function claims, and remember that there is no upfront oversight of supplements. Better yet, aim for a wholesome, balanced diet, and you won’t have to worry about what one particular food or pill claims to be.

—Judith C. Thalheimer, RD