food label fact and fiction
Without a doubt, the best way to ensure lasting health and vitality is to make whole, organic, real foods the foundation of our dietary philosophy. When we emphasize the highest quality fruits, vegetables, whole grains and grass-fed, pastured-raised meats (values permitting) we supply the body with the nutrients necessary to stay happily active while helping to prevent or reverse the onset of disease and discomfort. However, personal and professional responsibilities sometimes interfere with our ability to prepare and enjoy the foods that are so critically important to our well-being and we may be placed in a position that requires us to resort to packaged goods as a quick and convenient alternative. While the health enthusiast in all of us may be wincing at the prospect of being forced to eat another bar or ‘healthy’ shake, learning to identify and understand the variety of claims presented on food labels will help us to be best prepared for the event when packaged goods may become a necessity.
Starting with the most identifiable and commonly utilized, structure-function claims describe the role of a specific nutrient intended to affect or maintain the normal structure or function of the human body. For example, “builds strong bones” and “helps maintain bowel regularity”. If you browse the aisles of your favorite market you will notice an abundance of such claims because they can be made without any FDA approval as long as they are not misleading or mention a specific disease or symptom. This regulatory leniency encourages the excessive and somewhat frivolous use of structure function claims to promote products that may or may not be able to provide any actual benefit. Here is an example of a structure function claim that asserts that this product, “supports cognitive function and eye health”:
Unfortunately, the nature of structure-function claims and the correlations they suggest are often deceptively similar to highly regulated health claims, which we will address shortly.
Good Source Of…
Next, labels that claim either (1) the significant presence of specific ‘healthy’ nutrients or (2) imply that the product does not contain certain ‘unhealthy’ ones are known as nutrient claims. These claims are more highly regulated and must meet the FDA definition for which certain claims can be made. An example of the first variety of nutrient claim, the cereal box shown below can boast the claim, “good source of fiber” only if a single serving contains between 10-19% of the recommended daily value according to established FDA guidance.
An example of the second variety of nutrient claim, the ‘egg product’ below can only be advertised as “cholesterol free” if it contains less than 2 grams saturated and trans fat per serving.
Reduces The Risk Of…
Finally, labels that suggest a specific benefit are known as health claims and must be based upon “current, published, authoritative statements from certain federal scientific bodies, as well as from the National Academy of Sciences.” However, food manufacturers have argued that such high standards interfere with commercial free speech and so the FDA has further classified these claims as either ‘qualified’ or ‘unqualified’. Unqualified health claims can only be made when a clear link has been established between a specific dietary component and health, while qualified claims are based upon preliminary or limited research that simply suggests the possibility of a specific benefit. Finding the line between qualified and unqualified claims is a difficult task and a little beyond the scope of this particular piece, but the easiest way differentiate one from the other may be by the presence of the supporting disclaimer required when making a qualified health claim. Although unqualified health claims are a little harder to find, here is an excellent example of how packaged foods utilize health claims to promote the benefit of their product:
If you’re interested in learning more about the different varieties of health claims, here is a fairly thorough FAQ sheet on structure function, nutrient and health claims that may prove useful in helping establish the role processed foods will take in our diet.
Use With Caution
The variety of circumstances which may warrant the consumption packaged foods is infinite, but no matter how promising certain claims may appear, we should always remember that food labels are point of sale advertisements that are aimed at influencing our purchase behaviors. And, although the landscape of processed foods has shown tremendous signs of improvement over the past quarter century, the nutritional benefit to be received from manufactured products still pales in comparison to that of the whole, organic, and real foods that should form the foundation of a healthy and sustainable diet.
Images courtesy of Matthew Lovitt