Ten Facts to Know About Food Product Claims

This week’s buzz about misbranded green tea warrants some discussion about claims on food products. Have you ever wondered about all the extra words on the front of food packaging? More importantly, have these words ever persuaded you to buy a particular product? If you answered yes, you might want to take a few minutes to read this post.

  1. There are three types of regulated claims you’ll come across when grocery shopping: nutrient content claims (describe the level of a specific nutrient in a food product), health claims (describe the relationship between a substance and a disease), and structure/function claims (describe the role of a nutrient in a specific bodily function).

  2. Health claims are often longer than nutrient content or structure/function claims. Also, they only refer to risk reduction benefits, NOT curative properties of a substance.

  3. Fat (total and saturated), cholesterol, sodium and sugar “free” foods can still contain up to .5g of these nutrients. This loophole isn’t such a problem for sodium, cholesterol or sugar, but is of concern when it comes to total fat and saturated fat because the recommended daily values for these nutrients is low to begin with.

  4. When you see the words “less,” “reduced,” or “lower” remember that these terms are used to compare nutrient values of two similar products. The “reduced” version must contain 25% less of the nutrient in the claim. Example: Happy Country’s reduced fat potato chips contain 25% less fat than Happy Country’s regular potato chips.

  5. When you see the words “rich in,” “good source,” and “fortified” the claim is comparing a specific nutrient value in a product to the daily recommended value for that nutrient. This comparison is done in three tiers: “rich in” (denoting when a product contains 20% or more of the daily value), “good source” (denoting when a product contains 10-19% of the daily value), and “fortified” (denoting when a product contains 10% or more of the daily value). Since the FDA allows other words to be used in addition to those listed, it can be challenging to tell when a product falls in a certain category. Note that comparisons can only be made for nutrients with daily values.

  6. Lean vs. Extra Lean. These designations only apply to seafood and meat. Lean meat must contain less than 10grams total fat, 4.5grams or less saturated fat and less than 95milligrams cholesterol per serving. Extra lean meat must contain less than 5grams total fat, less than 2grams saturated fat, and less than 95milligrams cholesterol per serving.

  7. Baby foods are generally not allowed to have nutrient content claims, except for “unsweetened,” “unsalted,” or if the claim compares percentage of a vitamin or mineral to a daily value. It seems this stipulation is hard to follow, even for well-known manufacturers.

  8. Foods naturally low in or free of a nutrient cannot bear these respective claims. That’s why you’re unlikely to find packaged salads labeled with “low in fat.” That said, I have seen products naturally free of cholesterol-free with “contains no cholesterol.” (When it comes to cholesterol, keep in mind that only products with ingredients derived from animals can contain this nutrient. Why? Plants don’t have the ability to make cholesterol!).

  9. Claims that refer to antioxidants can only refer to antioxidants that have a recommended daily intake. So, flavonoids and polyphenols shouldn’t be included in these claims.

  10. Fortunately, unhealthy products with one positive attribute aren’t granted a complete free pass as they must display a disclosure statement. For example, if a product has no trans fat, but does have exorbitant levels of other bad-for-you nutrients, it must put a disclosure statement next to the trans fat nutrient content claim directing consumers to review the nutrition facts panel. The Food and Drug Administration tries to catch violators who don’t provide disclosure statements.

  11. (I just had to include this one). Products labeled as “fresh” may still be covered in waxes or coatings, sprayed with approved pesticides, washed with a mild chlorine or mild acid solution, or irradiated.

For an additional tidbits, take a look at this industry compliance FAQ compiled by the FDA. Unfortunately, this labeling system designed to help consumers make healthier food decisions has turned into a field day for marketing departments. At this point, it’s not helping anyone – manufacturers can’t figure out what they’re allowed to print on packaging and consumers aren’t able to select better foods based on the claims. Scientific American recently published an editorial calling out the current system as misleading and creating a false sense of security. As we’ve discussed previously, changes will hopefully come about soon.

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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One Response to Ten Facts to Know About Food Product Claims

  1. Remi says:

    I think GoodGuide is a phenomenal idea, especially with the rating system they are developing. I found a website ( http://bit.ly/cH6PDo ) which breaks-down the companies/products precise factors, utilizing "The GreenScorecard Rating System", determining the truth (Eliminating ALL Green Washing) which establishes itself more credible and eco-friendly! Keep up the good work and make sure to check out the link from Earth-List.com!

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