In the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed health claims on food labels, but only if the claim was backed up by significant scientific agreement. This is no longer the case.
The FDA now also allows claims based on weaker evidence, as long as the claim contains a phrase like “suggests but does not prove.” Claims using the words “supports,” “maintains” or “promotes” require little or no evidence of benefit. They can appear on any food, even junk foods.
No wonder we are confused.
Here are some of the most popular claims on some of your favourite foods:
“Made with whole grain,” be careful. These foods can contain a little or a lot of whole grain. It is not the same as whole grain. Look for foods made with 100 per cent whole grain or compare the fibre content to a similar food. Choose the food that contains the most fibre.
Fat-free, sugar-free or salt-free
Labeling a food as “free” of a certain nutrient, whether salt, sugar or fat, means it has none, or a “physiologically inconsequential” amount of that nutrient. If the package says “calorie-free,” the item has fewer than five calories per serving. For sugar or fat, this means the food has fewer than 0.5 grams per serving.
But be careful, A food could say ‘fat-free,’ but it could contain a lot of calories from sugar. If you’re watching your weight, you should also look at the total calories.
No trans fats
Even if a package advertises “no trans fats,” be careful. Products carrying this label can still have up to half a gram of trans fat per serving. Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat that raise your LDL cholesterol levels (the ‘bad’ kind) and increase your risk of heart disease.
The FDA requires scientific consensus before a company can claim its product strengthens a body part or prevents a disease. However, claims that a food maintains or supports a bodily function are not monitored as strictly.
While the FDA gives the vague guideline that they must be “truthful and not misleading,” it does not require any scientific evidence for these claims to be made. The label “may help reduce the risk of heart disease” would require approval, while “helps maintain a healthy heart” would not.
Another common but largely unregulated health claim is “helps support immunity.” This kind of wording is a great example of how companies are tricking consumers, because there may not be any evidence to back their claims.
The FDA has no formal definition for what ‘natural’ means, but it will not object to the label as long as the product “does not contain added colour, artificial flavours, or synthetic substances.” In the end, the ‘natural’ label means basically whatever the manufacturer decides.
The best plan of action is to avoid as many processed and prepackaged foods as possible and shop the perimeter of your grocery store.
Also check out examine.com. It is a great unbiased source on nutrition which investigates the science behind supplementation and nutrition.