(Each Tuesday, I write about an actionable item that we can all use in order to live and eat green.)
We’re all familiar with the claims on food labels: “good source of fiber,” “low sodium,” “cholesterol-free.” First of all, I don’t really think that these “health” claims accurately indicate the healthfulness of a product. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
So what do they mean?
- Nutrient content claims. These describe the particular nutrients that are in a food and are strictly regulated. If something is sugar-free, sodium-free, trans fat-free, etc. then it must have less than 0.5 grams of that particular nutrient. If it’s “reduced,” then it means that there is at least 25% less of that nutrient than in the reference food. (You can see a full list of definitions here.)
- Health claims. A health claim describes some kind of relationship between the food—or a nutrient in the food—and a disease. They have to include may or might: “A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of hypertension.” However, the food must provide at least 10% of the Daily Value for fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C calcium, and/or iron. Also, a single serving of the food cannot contain more than 13 g of fat, 4 g of saturated fat, 60 mg of cholesterol, or 480 mg of sodium.
Structure-function claims. Last, these claims simply describe how a nutrient affects the body (“iron builds strong blood”) but they don’t many any implications about risk reduction.
But we really shouldn’t put too much thought into these health claims. Contrary to what’s logical, I’d be willing to bet that most of these products with health claims aren’t healthy at all. They tend to get slapped onto processed foods in order to give them the aura of health. Just because Fruit Loops are “made with whole grains” or “a good source of fiber” does not mean that they’re a quality food product. Companies will do whatever it takes to manipulate their food in order to add more flashy “health” marketing to the front of their packages. Many of them do so by reducing the serving size. As stated above, something can be declared “trans fat-free” if it has less than 0.5 grams of trans fat. Companies can easily skirt that rule by shrinking the serving size, which is why you sometimes see ludicrous serving sizes like “1/3 of a muffin.”
So next time you’re checking out the middle aisles of the grocery store—where all the processed food is located—look at how every single product has some kind of health claim on it. And then ignore those foods and head toward the fruits and vegetables, fish, grains in bulk, and legumes—none of which tend to carry health claims. Time to eat fewer nutrients and eat more food.