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Nutrition and Weight Control Special Report

Making Sense of Health Claims

If you're one of the many health-conscious consumers who diligently reads package labels while food shopping, it may seem as if there's more to digest now than ever. In addition to the Nutrition Facts panel indicating nutrient amounts and ingredients, highlighted statements like "low-sugar" and "low-fat," and sales ploys like special offers and recipes, an increasing number of products feature claims on their packaging that they may help reduce your risk of developing a variety of diseases.

Fortunately, these health claims aren't mere marketing hype: Most claims must be backed up by scientific research and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has created specific rules that manufacturers must follow. However, some claims do not require such strong scientific backing, and it pays to know how to tell the difference.

Two major types of health claims are permitted on food labels: authorized health claims and qualified health claims:

  • Authorized health claims, also sometimes referred to as SSA (for significant scientific agreement) claims, have been judged by the FDA to have a high level of scientific support and therefore to provide consumers with confidence in the claim. A food sporting an authorized health claim on its label must fit within a specified set of nutritional parameters.
  • Qualified health claims are based on less scientific evidence and must be accompanied by a disclaimer stating that this is the case, thus the term "qualified." And though the FDA must still approve these claims, they should be viewed as far from definitive.

Other Types of Claims:

  • Nutrient content claims describe the level of a nutrient in a food -- for example, "fat-free," "excellent source of calcium," "good source of vitamin C," or "low-sodium." To make this kind of claim, a food must contain an FDA-designated amount of the nutrient being touted.
  • Structure/function claims describe the effect that a nutrient has on the body's structure or function -- for example, "the calcium and phosphorus in fat-free milk help build strong bones." The FDA does not authorize these claims; rather, the manufacturer is responsible for making sure the claim is truthful. These claims, which do not make any references to diseases, are often used on dietary supplements and functional foods.
  • Dietary guidance statements explain the health effects of a general category of foods— for example, "diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risks of some types of cancer" -- without referring to the specific substance in the foods responsible for the effects. They are not preapproved by the FDA.

Posted in Nutrition and Weight Control on July 22, 2010

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