When consumers view food and dietary supplement packaging at a grocery store or drugstore, they see many brightly-colored claims jumping out from package labels. Some food and supplement manufacturers utilize FDA-approved labeling, while others print claims that may or may not be accurate. For maximum safety and health benefits, consumers need to know which food label claims are legitimate and which claims are questionable.
Health claims on food and supplement labels connect an ingredient within the product to an effect on a specific disease or health-related condition. The following claims are approved by the FDA.
- National Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) Authorized Health Claims. Health claims characterizing a relationship between a food or supplement ingredient and a health-related condition are approved based on extensive reviews of scientific literature. For example, manufacturers can make the claim that “calcium builds strong bones” because of the preponderance of of evidence for this claim in scientific literature.
- Claims Based on Authoritative Statements. These claims are based on authoritative statements from the U.S. government or the National Academy of Sciences. However, these types of health claims can only be made for food. Dietary supplements cannot use authoritative statements in their packaging.
- Qualified Health Claims. These claims can be made on labels if a relationship between an ingredient and a health-related condition may exist. For instance, manufacturers can say that an ingredient “may reduce the risk of heart disease” if a relationship has been tentatively established but not scientifically verified.
Nutrient Content Claims
Nutrient content claims discuss the quantity of an ingredient present in a food or dietary supplement. “High in fiber” or “low in sugar” are examples of nutrient content claims.
The FDA allows any labeling that prints the quantity of an ingredient. For example, “contains 5 grams of dietary fiber per serving” would be an approved quantitative label. However, a label saying “only 200 mg of sodium” might be questionable because the label implies that the sodium level in the product is healthy when that claim may or may not be true. Another category of claims are percentage claims. For example, a supplement may say that it “contains 100% of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin D.” Also, comparison claims can be made, such “contains 50% less sugar than (another food)” as long as the claim is accurate.
Structure and function claims can link an ingredient in a food or supplement to a specific effect on the body. For instance, “fiber improves bowel function” is a well-established claim that could be included on a supplement or food label. The FDA does not pre-approve these claims, and if a claim is not well-founded, then the food or supplement label must include a printed disclaimer. For instance, a dietary supplement label may carry the disclaimer that the product is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
The FDA has started a new Front-of-Package Labeling Initiative. The FDA issued a press release in May 2012 stating that the organization plans to work with the food and supplement industries to develop guidance for front-of-package labels. Until this initiative is implemented, consumers will make better food and supplement choices when they understand the types of claims that are approved by the FDA versus the types of claims that should cause skepticism.
- Six Meaningless Claims on Food Labels. A New York Times article discussing food label claims that may or may not be accurate.
- Understanding the Food Label. A publication from the Colorado State University Extension on food labels and health claims.
- What Food Labels Really Mean. An article from U.S. News & World Report that debunks many claims made on the front of food packages.
- Safety and Health Claims. A collection of resources from Nutrition.gov to help consumers navigate the labels found on dietary supplements.