You already know the edict “Don’t believe everything you read.” But when it comes to health claims on food labels and packaging, a healthy dose of cynicism is particularly warranted.
Why? Because other than the Nutrition Facts Panel, most information on food labels is unregulated and best viewed as marketing or advertising. Its goal is to persuade you to put that food in your cart. Food manufacturers know that the lure of improved health is a powerful selling point with many consumers.
A true health claim specifically says that a food or a component of a food plays a role in the prevention of a certain disease. For example: “May help reduce the risk of heart disease.” These statements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which places stringent requirements on manufacturers making health claims. The FDA only allows claims for 12 diet-disease relationships:
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• Fruits and vegetables and cancer
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• Plant sterols and stanols (substances in many foods that prevent cholesterol from being absorbed in the bloodstream) and heart disease.
POM Wonderful ran afoul of health-claim standards for its pomegranate products when it claimed they could treat, prevent or reduce the risk of heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. Both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which governs advertising, took the company to task. The legal case is ongoing.
Because of the strict standards that food manufacturers must meet to make an authorized health claim, many food companies take an easier road and make a structure/function claim, which doesn’t have stringent FDA requirements. A structure/function claim says a nutrient in the food can benefit the normal structure or functioning of a bodily system. It says nothing about the food’s role in preventing a disease, but it’s easy to assume the two types of claims mean the same thing. “May help reduce the risk of osteoporosis” is a health claim. “Helps maintain healthy bones” is a structure/function claim.
Structure/function claims have been allowed for foods since 1938, but they were rarely used until dietary supplements got permission in 1994 to use structure/function claims — and sales skyrocketed. Food companies quickly jumped on that bandwagon.
While structure/function claims are not preapproved by the FDA, they must be truthful and not misleading. There have been some notable recent cases when the FTC has gone after companies for flouting that caveat. In 2009, Kellogg settled on charges that its claim that Frosted Mini-Wheats had a cognitive health benefit were false. A few months later, Kellogg came under fire again for adorning boxes of Cocoa Krispies and Rice Krispies with the (false) claim: “Now helps support your child’s immunity.” At the time, Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, said, “This one belongs in the hall of fame. By their logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves, and it will boost immunity.”
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Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at the UW. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.