Food Label Health Claims Decoded

The FDA recently approved a qualified health claim linking macadamia nuts to heart health, allowing food packaging to state:

“Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of macadamia nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol and not resulting in increased intake of saturated fat or calories may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. See nutrition information for fat [and calorie] content.”

My first reaction was, to be honest, excitement; I love macadamia nuts and am happy to hear that they may help protect my heart.

My second instinct, however, was to pause and wonder how other consumers may react to this. While I support nuts as a source of healthy fats and a major part of my diet, I do know that there is a lot of confusion surrounding food labels and the health claims asserted on packaging. Does this mean we should eat macadamia nuts every day? Will this treat heart disease? How much evidence is there behind this?

Luckily, labels are highly regulated, and a claim like this can be easily decoded with a bit of background.

The FDA allows the food industry to use health claims — statements which relate a certain ingredient to a health condition– when there is adequate scientific evidence supporting the relationship.  Different claims may highlight levels of nutrients (‘good source of vitamin A’) with approval, or they can tie a relationship between a nutrient and the functioning of the body (like ‘calcium builds strong bones’), though the FDA does not evaluate these claims and the label must reflect that. Companies cannot say that a nutrient is meant to diagnose, treat, or a cure a disease.

The gold-standard for claims are the Authorized ones, where there is such an abundance of evidence that the FDA supports the usage of these statements with confidence. There are only a handful of these claims (the list is found here), but some of the major ones include: Calcium/vitamin D and osteoporosis, saturated fat/cholesterol and heart disease, fruits/vegetables and cancer, and sodium and hypertension.

The list of ‘qualified’ claims is far longer– these are the statements that are supported by some body of research but not quite enough to be taken as undeniable fact. The FDA allows companies to use the statements but also requires a qualifying statement saying that, while there is evidence, it is not not enough to meet the rigorous standards of the FDA’s authorized claims.

For more on Qualified Health Claims, visit the FDA’s dedicated site: https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm2006877.htm

 

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