Health claims are statements on food packages that describe the relationship between a food or ingredient and a specific condition or disease. It often demonstrates how a nutrient can help reduce the risk of a certain disease, making the food that contains that nutrient seem appealing and healthy to you, the consumer. Health claims cannot claim to treat or cure a disease.
Authorized vs Qualified Health Claims
An authorized health claim has been approved by the FDA, and has enough scientific research to have enough evidence to support the relationship between the ingredient/nutrient and the condition or disease.
A qualified health claim is made for a relationship that hasn’t been universally accepted or backed by scientific research, however, there is enough evidence that strongly suggests the relationship exists. A qualified health claim is named as such because it requires a ‘qualifying statement’ that discloses that the evidence is being researched.
Using Health Claims While Shopping
This doesn’t mean that qualified health claims are wrong – the wonderful thing about the field of nutrition is that there is still so much research to be done. These statements are more educational that nutrient content claims, as it makes you think about overall and long-term health in many cases. Still, they’re put on the packages to sell you the product, not to give you a lesson on calcium and the reduced risk of osteoporosis. These food items may have lots of calcium that are great for your bones, but maybe they’re also high in fat and therefore high in calories. Look at the food as a whole – not just at what the health claim says!
As with the other claims on food packages, use the claims as a general guideline, but ultimately, look at the nutrition facts label! It will give you more then enough information to help you make smart decisions when shopping for yourself and your family.
Approved Health Claims by the FDA
There are a lot, lot, lot of relationships that have been approved by the FDA to be put on food packages. I won’t list them all, because frankly, I’ll get bored, and you’ll get bored, and it’s just too much information. But, I will list some of the more popular ones. For a full list, check out the reference link at the bottom of this page.
The relationship doesn’t just have to exist in order for a product to have the claim on it’s package, though. The food inside the package has to be relevant to the claim, and contain a certain amount of a specific nutrient to meet the standards to use that claim. (Whew, that was wordy!) In other words, you wouldn’t claim that fiber reduces the risk of cancer if your product has no fiber in it. These parameters usually follow the guidelines of nutrient content claims, which state how much fat (or other nutrient) is really “low fat”.
Let’s check out some examples:
Calcium, Vitamin D, and Osteoporosis – Calcium alone, or calcium and Vitamin D. Food must be high in calcium, or high in calcium and Vitamin D.
Dietary Fat and Cancer – Food must be “low fat” or “extra lean”.
Sodium and Hypertension – Food must be “low sodium”.
Fiber and Cancer – Food must be a fruit, vegetable, or grain product that is a “good source of dietary fiber”, and also be “low fat”.
Folate and Neural Tube Defects – Food must be a “good source of folate” (at least 40 mcg), which must then also be listed on the nutrition facts label.
Whole Grain Foods and Heart Disease/Certain Cancers – Food must contain 51% or more whole grain ingredients, and meet dietary fiber guidelines based on weight (multiple weights and amounts listed in Food Labeling Guide).
There are 30 pages of health claims in the Food Label Guide, so obviously my list is super incomplete. But, you get the idea.
Health claims may open you up to some great new information – maybe you didn’t know that walnuts may help reduce the risk of heart disease, and now you’ve found yourself a new midmorning snack. Just don’t let them be your sole indicator for whether a food is healthy or not – there are so many more factors than just the one nutrient connected with a long-term condition!
To get more information on other claims on food labels and how to make smart decisions when grocery shopping, check out these articles!
Reference: Food Labeling Guide, 2008. FDA.gov