Today’s consumers are understandably wary of the various claims that appear on the packaged food they buy. After all, there are a lot of details to sort through on a food label. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to separate factual information from marketing claims.
It’s a good strategy not to implicitly believe everything you might read on a package. However, it’s equally important not to go too far in the other direction and dismiss all package claims as nothing more than advertising puff.
You might be surprised to learn that many food label claims are, in fact, highly regulated, and can only be used if certain conditions are met. Read on to learn more.
What is a food claim?
A food claim is essentially a statement made by the manufacturer that refers to what’s in the food. In general, claims that appear on food labels fall into one of three categories:
Nutrient content claims
This type of claim relates to the amounts of different kinds of nutrients found in the food. For example, a product might claim to be “low in fat” or “rich in vitamin C.” Many rules concerning everything from wording to font size govern nutrient content claims. As a result, this type of claim is usually very trustworthy. The nutrients most frequently detailed in these claims are sugar, sodium, fat, or calories.
This claim makes a connection between a type of food and a health or medical condition such as heart disease. For example, a food might claim that it can help prevent heart disease because it is low in cholesterol. Because these claims have serious health and nutritional implications, they undergo intense scrutiny, which includes passing a review of scientific evidence.
At present, the FDA has approved a dozen different health claims. These uphold the correlation between things like calcium and vitamin D and osteoporosis; sodium and hypertension; dietary fat and cancer; and non-cariogenic carbohydrate sweeteners and dental caries.
Structure or function claims
These claims, which frequently appear on dietary supplements and drugs as well as on food labels, describe the contribution a nutrient makes to a particular physiological function. These are different from health claims because they refer to everyday functioning rather than a specific health condition.
Structure or function claims include things like “calcium builds strong bones” or “vitamin A protects your eyesight.” Before manufacturers can include these types of claims on packages, they must submit their proposed wording to the FDA. In addition, the package must feature a disclaimer which states that the claims have not been evaluated by the FDA.
What about food marketing terms?
Food and nutrition labeling laws are enforced by the FDA and the USDA. However, food advertising and marketing is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) via its 1994 governing document, the Food Advertising Enforcement Policy Statement.
Notably, the FTC does not have a list of approved and unapproved claims. Rather, it generally prohibits so-called deceptive advertising claims that omit key facts or that contain misleading details. It also states that nutrition or health benefit claims cannot legally be made unless the advertiser has sufficient supporting evidence.
Not surprisingly, this more general, somewhat vague focus has given rise to a number of false advertising practices whose goal is to confuse or trick consumers. Two such practices are:
This term refers to the use of meaningless, unsubstantiated terms to exaggerate the worth or quality of a product. These types of claims—“New York’s Best Bagel,” for example—are clearly subjective and not at all based on fact.
These claims identify a product as the best or the highest quality without specifying what it is being compared to. An example of an incomplete claim is a product that says it is “better than the leading brand” without actually saying what the leading brand is.
What are some common, trustworthy food claims?
If you see any of the following food claims on a package, you can feel confident about trusting them because they are regulated and enforced.
“Good source” or “Excellent source”
A food that contains between 10 percent and 19 percent of the daily recommended intake of a certain nutrient can be called a “good source” of that nutrient. It can be called an “excellent source” if it contains at least 20 percent.
“Excellent source” can also be replaced by the alternate terms “high in” or “rich in.” If a nutrient does not have an associated recommended daily intake—omega-3 fatty acids, for example, fall into this category—these claims cannot be made about it.
This claim can refer to calories, total or saturated fat, sugars, or cholesterol. It is based on the amounts of these elements that are found in a single serving of the food.
For example, a product labelled “low fat” contains three grams or less of fat per serving. A “low sodium” product contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving. A “low calorie” product contains 40 calories or fewer per serving.