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(48) Nutrition


How to Read a Nutrition Label For Dummies


On the label: label claims

In the 1980s, the savvy Kellogg Company ran an ad campaign for its fiber-rich All Bran cereal reminding the public of the National Cancer Institute’s recommendation to eat low-fat, high-fiber foods, fresh fruits, and vegetables to maintain a healthy weight.

According to the FDA, sales of high-fiber cereals increased over 35 percent within a year.13 Manufacturers realized that putting nutrition and health claims on labels was effective in influencing consumer purchases. Supermarket shelves were soon crowded with products boasting various claims.

So, can you feel confident that the jar of light mayonnaise is really lighter in calories and fat than regular mayonnaise? Yes, you can. The FDA mandates that all claims on labels follow strict guidelines.

Currently, the FDA allows the use of three types of claims on food products:

(1) Nutrient content claims,

(2) Health claims, and

(3) structure/function claims.

All foods displaying these claims on the label must meet specified criteria. Let’s look at each of these claims closely.

Nutrient Content Claims

A food product can make a claim about the amount of a nutrient it contains (or doesn’t contain) by using descriptive terms such as free (fat-free yogurt), high (high fiber crackers), low (low saturated fat cereal), reduced (reduced-sodium soup), and extra lean (extra lean ground beef) as long as it meets the strict criteria designated by the FDA. These terms can help you identify at a glance the food items that best meet your needs.

Jessie, the student with borderline high blood pressure from the beginning of this chapter, could look for low-sodium claims on labels to help limit the amount of sodium in her diet. As you may remember, Jessie enjoys a mug of hot soup during her late-night studying. But she’s probably sipping more sodium than she thinks.

Look at the labels of the canned soups. We should be looking for the “low sodium” label on chicken soup, as that soup cannot contain more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving. A next best choice would be the soup with the term “less sodium” on the label, which means that it must contain at least 25 percent less sodium than the regular variety. The classic can of chicken soup contains almost 900 milligrams for a serving, which is likely the same or even more sodium than we consumed at dinner.

Some of the most common nutrient claims on food labels, the specific criteria that each claim must meet as mandated by the FDA, and examples of food products that carry these nutrient claims.

Health Claims

Suppose you are sitting at your kitchen table eating a bowl of Cheerios in skim milk, and staring at the front of the cereal box. You notice a claim on the front of the box that states: “The soluble fiber in Cheerios, as part of a heart healthy diet, can help you lower your cholesterol.” Do you recognize this as a health claim that links Cheerios with better heart health?

A health claim must contain two important components:

(1) A food or a dietary compound, such as fiber, and

(2) A corresponding disease or health-related condition that is associated with the claim. In the

Cheerios example, the soluble fiber (the dietary compound) that naturally occurs in oats has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels (the corresponding health-related condition), which can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

There are three types of health claims:

(1) Authorized health claims,

(2) Health claims based on authoritative statements, and

(3) Qualified health claims.

The differences between them lie in the amount of supporting research and agreement among scientists about the strength of the relationship between the food or dietary ingredient and the disease or condition for a definition of these claims and examples of each.

Structure/Function Claims

The last type of label claim is the structure/function claim, which describes how a nutrient or dietary compound affects the structure or function of the human body. The claims “calcium (nutrient) builds strong bones (body structure)” and “fiber (dietary compound) maintains bowel regularity (body function)” are examples of structure/function claims. Structure/function claims cannot state that the nutrient or dietary compound can be used to treat a disease or a condition.

 These claims can be made on both foods and dietary supplements. Unlike the other health claims, structure/function claims don’t have to be preapproved by the FDA. They do have to be truthful and not misleading, but the manufacturer is responsible for making sure that the claim is accurate. These claims can be a source of confusion. Shoppers can easily fall into the trap of assuming that one brand of a product with a structure/function claim on its label is superior to another product without the claim. For instance, a yogurt that says “calcium builds strong bones” on its label may be identical to another yogurt without the flashy label claim. The consumer has to recognize the difference between claims that are supported by a significant amount of solid research and approved by the FDA, and structure/function claims that don’t require prior approval for use.

If a dietary supplement such as a multivitamin is to contain a structure/function claim, its manufacturer must notify the FDA no later than 30 days after the product has been on the market.

Dietary supplements that use structure/function claims must display a disclaimer on the label that the FDA did not evaluate the claim and that the dietary supplement is not intended to “diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”Manufacturers of foods bearing structure/function claims do not have to display this disclaimer on the label, just on dietary supplements.

All foods that boast a health claim and/or a structure/function claim can also be marketed as “functional foods.” The feature box “Functional Foods: What Role Do They Play in Your Diet?” discusses this trendy category of foods.

Although keeping the types of health and structure/function claims straight can be challenging, here’s one way to remember them:

Authorized health claims and health claims based on authoritative statements are the strongest, as they are based on years of accumulated research or an authoritative statement.

Qualified health claims are less convincing. They are made on potentially healthful foods or dietary ingredients, but, because the evidence is still emerging, the claim has to be “qualified” as such.

Structure/function claims are the weakest claims, as they are just statements or facts about the role the nutrient or dietary ingredient plays in your body. They can’t claim that the food or dietary ingredient lowers your risk of developing a chronic disease such as heart disease or cancer. As you read the claims on the labels, you will quickly see that those with less established scientific evidence behind them have the weakest wording.

The Take-Home Message

The FDA regulates the labeling on all packaged foods.

The Nutrition Facts Panel and the Daily Values are found on all food labels. Every food label must include the name of the food, its net weight, the name and address of the manufacturer or distributor, a list of ingredients, and standardized nutrition information. The FDA allows and regulates the use of nutrient content claims, health claims, and structure/function claims on food labels. Any foods or dietary supplements displaying these claims on the label must meet specified criteria and be truthful.

Nutrient claims on the food label must meet strict FDA criteria.

Cereal-box readers will read the information on the box as many as 12 times before they consume the last spoonful!

A Structure/Function Label Claim

The structure/function claim is that the antioxidants added to this cereal support the immune system. The manufacturer cannot claim that the food lowers a consumer’s risk of a chronic disease or health condition.

Because this can of chicken noodle soup displays the “low sodium” nutrient claim, it can’t provide more than 140 milligrams of sodium in a serving.

This can of soup has more than 25 percent less sodium than the classic version, so the term “less” can be displayed on its label.

The classic variety of chicken noodle soup has the most sodium per serving.


Nutrient content claims - Claims on the label that describe the level or amount of a nutrient in a food product.

Health claims - Claims on the label that describe a relationship between a food or dietary compound and a disease or health-related condition.

Structure/function claims – Claims on the label that describe how a nutrient or dietary compound affects the structure or function of the human body.



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