ABC's of Health Claims

Coming soon to a grocery store near you, more information on the food label

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

If you are overweight or obese it could be the result of too little nutrition information, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA's proposed Consumer Health Information for Better Nutrition program wants to improve your understanding of the health consequences of your food choices. Their plan is to tighten restrictions on food manufacturers to insure truthful health claims on labels so you can select healthier foods. Will it help consumers or only add to the sea of confusion about diet and health?

Claim Game

Sorting through the health claims plastered on products is like walking a minefield. The good news is that the FDA promises to enhance enforcement of the new rules and regulations, which should lead to labels we can trust. The goal of the new program is to help you understand the 'claim game' and distinguish between qualified and unqualified claims.

An example of an authorized health claim, one that must contain reference to a food or substance and a disease, is: "Calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis". Whereas, an unqualified health claim falls under the umbrella of a structure/function claim, which can only describe how a food or substance affects the body's structure or its function and cannot make reference to a disease i.e. 'Calcium helps builds healthy bones". Can you tell the difference between the two claims? Probably not -- most people would infer the same benefit from both statements.

The program proposes a system that would rank the health claims on a scale of A-D. Products with "A" health claims have the most conclusive evidence supporting their association much like the following claims which are the only FDA approved health claims:

  • Calcium and osteoporosis
  • Dietary fats and cancer
  • Saturated fats and cholesterol and risk of coronary heart disease
  • Sugar alcohols and dental caries
  • Fiber and cancer
  • Folic acid and neural tube defects
  • Fruits and vegetables and cancer
  • Soluble fiber and coronary heart disease
  • Sodium and hypertension
  • Soy protein and risk of coronary heart disease
  • Stanols/sterols and risk of coronary heart disease
  • Nuts and cardiovascular disease

Health claims ranking a "B" would have significant scientific evidence but not be conclusive. The ranking of "C" and "D" would suggest that the evidence is not substantial and therefore the claim not supported with adequate scientific research. In addition, unqualified health claims need to be accompanied by a disclaimer such as 'this product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease'. The system, at best, will help consumers to seek the truth in advertising and not be easily misled about diet and disease relationships. The FDA hopes that manufacturers will develop healthier products and not attempt misleading language that confuses consumers.

To Market, To Market

What's a consumer to do?

  • Rely on the nutrition facts panel, it is the most useful piece of information on the label.
  • Become familiar with the FDA approved claims and seek to fill your basket with foods we know are good for us.
  • When the claims ratings start showing up on packages, stick with the A's and B's.
  • Read the fine print and understand that disclaimers are there to protect you.
  • Remember: there are no magic bullets; no single food has everything you need.
  • Be adventurous! Try a variety of foods to get a wealth of nutrients into your diet.
  • Make WebMD your go-to website to keep abreast of the latest diet and nutrition information.

I doubt that the obesity epidemic is related to consumers understanding of health claims. Plain and simple, our love affair with food and disdain for exercise is the cause of the epidemic, not the labels. But does the claim 'lose more weight with 100% daily value of calcium' encourage consumers to purchase the product? Maybe so. The FDA is banking on it and overhauling its dietary claim process in an attempt to help consumers choose more wisely. Stick with the "A" or "B" list of health claims to lead you to foods with the greatest nutritional benefits.

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