Are Health Claims Reliable for Food Selection?

by | Sep 13, 2021 | Nutrition, Real Food

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All health claims are supposed to be based on what is deemed “substantial” evidence, but even when there is such evidence it doesn’t necessarily mean that a given food is a healthy choice for an individual.

In addition to the information included on the nutrition facts label, the Food and Drug Administration also regulates other nutrition claims that food manufacturers can place anywhere on the package. One type is called health claims.

Health claims describe a relationship between a product and a reduced risk of a disease or a unhealthy condition. The FDA says they must be complete, truthful, and not misleading.

There are two categories of allowed health claims:

  • Authorized means there must be significant scientific agreement (SSA) among qualified experts that the claim is supported by the totality of publicly available scientific evidence.
  • Qualified claims are supported by some scientific evidence, but do not meet the significant scientific agreement standard.

An example of an authorized claim is the relationship of the intake of calcium and vitamin D to reduced risk of osteoporosis. [1]

Examples of qualified claim are the relationship between consumption of olive oil and reduced risk coronary heart disease [2], and the relationship between corn oil and reduced risk of heart disease. [3]

The FDA controls allowed wording of qualified claims, for example: Green tea may reduce the risk of breast or prostate cancer although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim.

Other approved health claim connections include nuts and heart disease, omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease, olive oil and coronary heart disease, green tea and cancer, tomatoes and certain cancers, canola oil and coronary heart disease, and corn oil and heart disease.

Here are some examples of claims which food manufacturers have petitioned the FDA to accept as Qualified:

  • Macadamia Nuts and Reduced Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Petitioned by Royal Hawaiian Macadamia Nut, Inc.
  • Soybean Oil and Reduced Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Petitioned by Bunge Limited, a food processing company
  • High-Amylose Maize Starch and Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Petitioned by Ingredion Inc., a starch producing company
  • Whole Grains and a Reduced Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Petitioned by ConAgra Foods Inc., a packaged and processed food producer

All health claims are supposed to be based on what is deemed “substantial” evidence, but even when there is such evidence it doesn’t necessarily mean that a given food is a healthy choice for an individual.

Can you rely on health claims? To fully answer that question, you would have to evaluate the research on which they’re based—a task which is well over the head of most of us. But there’s another factor at play: just because a food product has ONE nutritious attribute, doesn’t mean it is nutritious. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and some of those parts can be quite unwholesome. For example, highly processed or high-sugar foods to which olive oil has been added may claim the benefits of olive oil, but do not have to clearly state the risks associated with other ingredients.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that health claims are utilized by food manufacturers to increase sales by appealing to the individual searching for a nutritious product. Like all marketing claims, they only tell one side of a story. Your best strategy for finding nutritious foods in the market is to understand for yourself what makes food nutritious, and what makes food unhealthy. Here’s one rule of thumb: the less processed the food, the healthier it is likely to be.

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

Fundamentals of Health Alliance

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The Fundamentals of Health Alliance works to publish useful and reliable information about nutrition and health. Their mission is to empower readers to be informed with honest, non-biased information about food, nutrition and the vital components of health.

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