Food and Nutrition

Consumers -- Beware of Misleading Food Labels

| by Mitzi Dulan

How many times have you walked into a grocery or health store and seen an array of products that are just screaming at you to buy them because they claim to be full of wonderful benefits? The attractive packaging seems to catch your eye from a mile away with bold neon text on the concoctions that just force you to pick up the product and read what it says.

Or how many times have you been torn between two similar products trying to decide which one to buy? Upon further investigation of the packaging, one of the products claims to be a healthier choice, so you immediately drop the other product and pick the one that claimed to be a better choice and walk out of the grocery store with a smile on your face because you feel like you made an informed decision and used your money wisely.

But it is important to understand that just because a product “claims” to have all these benefits doesn’t necessarily make these “claims” true. You may be thinking, how is that even possible? Shouldn’t it be illegal to claim something and then not come through with it? The answer is no. It’s a sneaky new way to market and lure people into buying one product over a similar competitor or to get you to pay extra by making you think that you will benefit more out of it.

So how can you be an informed buyer and not fall for these gimmicks? Well, first it is important to understand the types of claims on products. Usually, they are divided into two broad categories: health claims and structure function claims.

A health claim on a label has two essential components:
1. a substance
2. a disease

A health claim describes the relationship between these two components and is regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) so it has to be legitimate. A similar claim is a qualified health claim which simply suggests that there is emerging scientific evidence that show some type of benefit.

A structure-function claim is what the consumer needs to look out for. These claims are NOT regulated by the FDA and do not prevent/cure a specific condition or disease; however, physiological effects of a product can be noted which may not be as beneficial as the product states.

The difference between the two seems simple, but trying to decipher that at the grocery store…not so simple.

Here are a few examples of the differences between the two claims that may trick you:

Health Claim (regulated by the FDA)
-- This product will “lower cholesterol
-- This product will provide relief from “chronic” constipation.
-- This product suppresses appetite to treat “obesity”.
-- This product helps with “sleep apnea”.
-- This product helps maintain healthy lung function in smokers.

Structure Function Claim (NOT regulated)
-- This product will “help maintain normal cholesterol levels”.
-- This product will provide relief from “occasional” constipation.
-- This product helps suppress appetite to help with weight loss.
-- This product helps with occasional sleeplessness.
-- This product aids in healthy lung function.

* Note: A health claim is more precise in explaining the health related condition or disease, while the structure function claim is not.

These claims were originally confined to dietary supplements which made them sort of easy to control, but now have expanded in the food industry on several other products. Examples include fruit juices and antioxidant drinks which makes it all the more important for us as consumers to know the difference between them. Just recently, CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) sued Coca Cola for making deceptive and unsubstantial claims on its VitaminWater products which they market to be a healthier alternative to soda and providing a whole array of benefits by labeling the flavors as “defense”, “rescue”, “energy” and “endurance”. There is no reason to pay extra for a product just because it “claims” to be beneficial.

Here are some ways to help you make a more informed decision the next time you are at the grocery store:

1. Look for a specific disease like osteoporosis or cancer. A health claim will always be specific and state the disease.

2. Try to look for a disclaimer on the packaging like “these claims have not been evaluated by the FDA”. You will immediately know that it is a structure function claim and not worth your extra money.

3. Other considerations for label misinterpretation: There are several other sneaky marketing strategies that a consumer needs to know about. This includes labeling like:
a. Calorie free: doesn’t necessarily mean 0 calories, and according to the FDA, the product has less than 5 calories per serving.
b. Fat free: the product contains less than 5 g of fat per serving, but if you consume more than one serving, those grams can quickly add up!
c. Sugar free- doesn’t necessarily mean calorie free! It might contain sugar alcohols that still have 4 calories per gram! Usually sugar free refers to a product containing 0.5 g sugar per serving.
d. Sodium free: less than 5 mg sodium per serving
e. Cholesterol free: less than 2 mg of cholesterol per serving and 2 g or less of saturated fat per serving.
f. 0% Trans fat: the product contains less than 0.5 g trans fat per serving, but again if you are consuming way more than one serving, those trans fats can add up.

These tips will surely help you become an informed buyer and be able to pick up on tricky marketing strategies that lure you into believing a product is more beneficial and tempt you into paying more.