Wellness They're GRRREAT!

Published on February 8th, 2013 | by Matthew Lovitt


food label fact and fiction

Frosted Flakes!

Lots of vitamin D! It’s gotta be healthy! Right?

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.

Supports Healthy…

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”:

Udo's Oil. Structure Function Food Claim.

Supports Healthy…


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.

Cascadian Farm Chocolate O's. Nutrient Claim.

Good Source Of…


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.


Abbotsford Farm Egg Product. Nutrient Claim.

Free, Low and Zero…

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:

Bob's Red Mill Adzuki Beans. Health Claim.

Reduce The Risk Of…


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


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About the Author

A holistic nutritionist in the making, Matthew spends the majority of his time trying to unravel the beautifully complex relationship between food, health and spiritual well-being. While this may sound like a somewhat glamorous pursuit, his daily journey towards enlightenment often begins and ends in front of a computer or textbook with the occasional retreat to the kitchen to rejuvenate his mind and body. When not enthralled in his quest to greater understanding, Matthew can be found attempting some insane test of physical endurance on the highways of Arizona, eating peanut butter and banana bagel sandwiches in his pajamas, or watching cartoons with his amazing fiance and puppy. If you're interested in joining Matthew on his journey to health and wellness, please feel free to follow him on Twitter (@veggiematthew), Facebook or at his blog.

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