It seems that shopping for groceries at the local supermarket isn’t as easy as it used to be. We are constantly bombarded by marketing messages and media tactics pushed by food manufacturers.

This constant stream of information makes grocery shopping time consuming and a tad stressful. It seems that as a society, we trying to move toward a more health-conscious lifestyle, but with so much nutritional information out for consumers to interpret, one never knows if they’ve purchased the right foods. Shopping today can be a lengthy process with much trial-and-error as we try to pick what’s best for us.

Food labels boast health claims and merchandise is placed in attractive packaging. Plus, there’s a seemingly endless supply of options. If I want instant oatmeal, I’m faced with choices beyond just flavor. There’s organic, sugar-free, lower sodium, weight control, and plenty more to choose from.

If you’re like me, you might feel the need to do a bit of research about the food you’re purchasing. Do I want the organic? Do I want to focus on my sodium intake or sugar? Does the weight control option mean less calories than the rest? And, what’s wrong with my favorite maple and brown sugar recipe?

Established health claims like “low-sodium” and “non-fat”, now coupled with newer terms such as “no hormones added”, “antibiotic free”, and “natural” seem like a ton of marketing malarkey aimed to tempt consumers.

In reality, food label claims are strictly regulated. As new claims emerge in the market, it’s important to understand what each claim really means, in order to make informed choices.

Identifying Types of Food Claims

There are three types of food claims you’ll encounter on food labels: nutrient content claims, health claims, and structure/function claims.

The most easily recognized is nutrient content claims. These refer to the amount of nutrients in a food and they typically address calories, sodium, fat, sugar, and cholesterol. You’ll see claims such as “rich in Vitamin C” or “low-fat” on foods like meats, produce, grains, dairy, and eggs. Food manufacturers must follow strict guidelines to include nutrient content claims on their packaging.

Health claims identify a correlation between a food and a health-related condition. Think about any heart-healthy claims or heart images you’ve seen on cereal boxes. These types of claims undergo serious scrutiny and review. In fact, they must pass a review of scientific evidence to be included on a food label.

 The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only approved 12 health claims for use on food labels:

  1. Sodium and hypertension
  2. Saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease
  3. Soluble fiber (in certain foods) and heart disease
  4. Soy protein and heart disease
  5. Stanols/sterols and heart disease
  6. Fiber-containing grains, fruits, vegetables, and heart disease
  7. Fiber-containing grain products, fruits, vegetables, and cancer
  8. Fruits, vegetables, and cancer
  9. Dietary fat and cancer
  10. Calcium, vitamin D, and osteoporosis
  11. Folic acid and neural tube defects in pregnant women
  12. Noncarcinogenic carbohydrate sweeteners and dental caries

Source: Food & Nutrition magazine by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, January/February 2017 issue

Structure, or function claims, provide information describing the role the food or nutrient has in physiological function. These claims are not only for food labels. You’ll see these types of claims on dietary supplements and drug labels too. Phrases like “fiber maintains bowel regularity” or “calcium builds strong bones” are not uncommon to see in the dietary supplement section of your supermarket. The wording of these claims must be submitted to the FDA by product manufacturers. If the claim has not been evaluated by the FDA, the manufacturer must provide a disclaimer on the product label for consumer reference.

Food Claims and Regulatory Agencies 

Do you ever wonder who oversees the information that is slammed on food product packaging? Manufactures can’t just get away with making unfounded claims on their food labels. Three federal agencies review food claims in the U.S.:

United States Department of Agriculture. The USDA is responsible for the organic program, antibiotic and hormone use, and commodity marketing board. A food that is certified USDA organic, or claims no antibiotics were used, has been reviewed by the USDA. The Food and Inspection Service is an agency under the USDA that ensures accuracy and honesty on the labeling of meat, including poultry and certain egg products.

Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has jurisdiction over all food labels and non-USDA-regulated food products, as well as dietary supplements, bottled water, food additives, and infant formulas. This includes mixed foods that contain meat, poultry, and eggs.

Federal Trade Commission. The FTC oversees communication of food claims in food advertising, marketing, and endorsements. That entails every avenue of marketing and advertising, like television, print, social media, and online content.

Be a Smart Shopper

Food labels and claims can be tricky business for consumers. With multiple factors to consider when purchasing food, like the amount and type of processing and nutrient content, it’s important to get informed and make wise choices at the supermarket. Pick foods that suit your lifestyle with approved claims that fulfill your specific health needs. Always watch out for false advertising. Discuss your diet with your doctor or dietitian for nutrition guidance, and always remember to consume in moderation!

Don’t forget to check back soon for the second part to “What Food Labels are Really Telling You.”