By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD
Having a hard time trusting nutritional claims on packages? Well, you’re not alone. According to a 2011 Neilson Survey with over 25,000 people from 56 different countries, more than two-thirds question the trustworthiness of nutritional claims.
And worse yet, 6 out of 10 have trouble understanding nutritional labels, with the easiest to understand being straightforward claims such as calories and vitamin content.
With a few years of food industry experience under my belt, I’m shedding light on the health and nutrition claims that I believe are the most confusing.
1. Made with/a good source of: Oftentimes products have the claim “good source of” or “made with” a certain ingredient. What does this mean? The specific nutrient or ingredient (like real fruit) needs to contain at least 10% of the Daily Value or serving.
For example, one brand of waffles may say “made with whole grains” and contain 5 grams of whole grains per serving, about 1/3 serving (a serving is 16g). “Good source” and “made with” means there is some of that ingredient, but maybe not as much as people think.
2. All Natural: The FDA still hasn’t defined the term “natural” and continues to use its 1993 policy: “FDA has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural’, however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”
So with “all natural” you know you’re not getting artificial colors or synthetic ingredients, but you still have to check the ingredients to really tell what the product offers in terms of nutrition (remember, sugar is natural!).
3. Health Claims: The FDA allows numerous health disease claims on packages. The FDA requires significant scientific agreement to approve these claims, so they can be helpful for people looking for ways to manage chronic diseases.
For example, the most common health claim is for oats (Helps Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease) such as the one used on Cheerios packaging. To qualify for the claim, the product needs to contain 25% (0.75g) of the total soluble fiber proven to help reduce heart disease (3g). The product also needs to be low both in fat and saturated fat to qualify.
For more on disease-related health claims go here.
4. No Sugar Added: This claim means that no sugar (or sugar-like ingredients) is added during processing, but it doesn’t mean the product is free from sugar. If someone desires a product without sugar they should keep their eyes peeled for the “sugar-free” claim or check the nutrition facts panel. Some products with yogurt or milk will contain natural sugars (lactose) so check the ingredients too.
5. Omega-3/DHA: I think omega-3 claims are among the most confusing because labels don’t always differentiate between the two types: Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), that comes from plant products like flax, walnuts, and canola oil; and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), that come mainly from marine sources like salmon and tuna. While ALA is beneficial for heart health, DHA (and EPA to lesser extent) provide a multitude of benefits to the brain, heart, and immune system.
Another problem is people don’t always know the amount they need because there is no Daily Value. International recommendations are 500mg daily for DHA and EPA combined, so look for the total of DHA in the product or find the company website to get the info. Eggs with DHA are your best bet, containing anywhere from 75 to 100mg of DHA. Milk and other products tend to be lower (20-40mg). Of course, fatty fish like salmon gives you the most bang for your buck with 1220-2400mg per 4 oz of combined DHA and EPA.
Well, that’s it. When you understand claims it can help you make informed decisions about the products you buy. Yes, there may be sugar in the ingredient line but if there’s only 2g per serving, that’s not much (unless you’re eating 5 servings in one sitting!).
So tell me, what nutrition claims confuse you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in our Food and Cooking community.