Nutrition Claims Explained: Truth or Trend? Let’s talk about it….
A can of vegetables may say “low in sodium”. A milk carton “high in calcium”, A salad dressing labeled “light” or cookies advertise they “burn fat”.
These are examples of Nutrition claims and are typically found on the front of a food or supplement package. They are statements that suggest or imply a food has a particular beneficial property by using terms such as low, light, supports or free. Claims can also be related to a health benefit such as “anti-aging, helps reduce body fat, supports bone health”, or even “effortless weight loss”. In an era where weight loss is so heavily commercialized, and the latest diet trend promoted by a self-proclaimed health guru or Hollywood star, nutrition and health claims can be misleading. So how can we determine the truth vs trend of a claim?
The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have stringent regulations to define what terms can be used with respect to food and health claims. Let’s first look at some definitions to further explore these claims: Daily Value (DV) is the recommended amount of nutrients to consume and not exceed per day. The %DV is how much of the nutrient in a single serving of that food or dietary supplement contributes to your daily diet. For example, a food providing 20% DV per serving is can use the claim “high” or “good source of” the nutrient, and less than 5% is categorized as “low”.
Below is a table outlining definition criteria for such claims:
*Calorie free: Less than 5 calories per serving
*Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
*Reduced calorie: Reduced by at least 25% of calories per serving
*Light: Has at least 1/3 fewer calories or 50% less fat
*Reduced sugar: At least 25% less sugar per serving
*Sugar free: Less than 0.5grams of sugar per serving
These claims seem conventional and provide straightforward information. It becomes tricky when claims imply information and leave room for interpretation, or promote a particular health benefit.
1. “Light”, refers to calories, but often times manufacturers have used this to refer to taste. Olive oil, labeled as “light” may have the same calories and fat content as the regular but be “lighter” in taste.
2. “Made with real fruit” does not mean the product doesn’t contain added artificial sugar.
3. “Natural” is not an equivalent for healthy.
4. “No added sugar” products can still contain natural sugars found in fruit, which are turned into syrup during processing. Added ingredients like maltodextrin, which is a carbohydrate, can also increase sugar content. No added sugar does not mean these products are calorie nor carbohydrate free.
5. Health bars or shakes are often glorified and marketed as “every dieter’s secret to success” but can be full of sugar, fats, artificial sweeteners and salt.
6. “Multigrain” or “Made with whole grain” can still be highly refined and stripped from healthy ingredients such as fiber. Often times “made with whole grain” breads can be darker in color but because they contain caramel coloring.
7. “Lightly sweetened” can mean anything. Although the FDA has stringent criteria for reduced sugar, manufacturers will use strategic marketing tricks to bypass them. Lightly sweetened could still be loaded with sugar and added sugar.
8. “Immune booster” or “supports immune system” for products containing vitamins or antioxidants. There are stringent regulations restricting manufacturers from making medical claims, but broad statements such as these leave a lot of room for interpretation and are misleading for consumers.
9. “Fat burning” products provide the notion that when consumed, they’ll increase your metabolism and miraculously shrink fat away. Some will even point out specific foods such as oatmeal or yogurt, which certainly play a role in a balanced healthy diet, but none of these perform miracles.
10. “Boosts metabolism” products promising to boost metabolism typically contain high doses of caffeine or other stimulants to make you feel more alert. Our metabolism depends on factors such as genetics, gender, hormones, body size and many more.
The internet and social media are also filled with misleading nutrition and health information. Keep an eye out for these red flags and utilize these strategies to find information that you can count on:
- If it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
- Read “.com” sources with a critical eye. While some may provide credible nutrition information, “.com” indicates a commercial domain, so they intend to make a profit.
- Be wary of a source that does not list an author or a reviewer, or either person does not have listed
credentials relevant to the field.
- Evaluate websites and social media for marketing gimmicks. Gimmicks may include weigh t loss guarantees, celebrity spokespeople, extremely restrictive diets, exaggerated claims, and boosting products.
- Seek out .org, .edu, and .gov sources. Read articles critically. If the information sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Look for pieces written by authors and/or reviewers with relevant credentials. Check the date published and pursue the source list.
- Follow social media accounts by looking for credentials and proper training such as “MD”, “DO”,“RD” and “RDN” after their names.
- Ask a credentialed healthcare professional like a trained medical specialist or registered dietitian.
It is important to decipher what nutrition information is true from trend. Keep an open mind and shop with a degree of skepticism. Remember that appetite and weight regulation involve complex systems determined by many factors not in your control. Know that there is help available under guidance of a trained professional. Follow these strategies to find reliable nutrition information and health claims and if in doubt, ask a credentialed healthcare professional. Most importantly, remember it is not about one super product, but rather an overall super plan.