One of the ways in which we can make better food choices is by reading food labels. Helpful components of a food label include, nutrition information, ingredient list, and health claim statements. The nutritional panel will inform you on the serving size, number of servings per container, total calories, and the amount of nutrients present in the food, expressed as percentage daily value (DV). The % DV tells you the amount of nutrients in each serving of the food based on a 2000 calories per day diet. It is a general guide since not everyone need 2000 calories per day. Some people will need more and some less depending on body weight and physical activity. If the % DV of a nutrient is less than 5%, the content of that nutrient is considered to be low. But, if the % DV is at 20% or above, the nutrient content is considered to be high. So if you are looking for foods that are high in calcium, check to make sure that the % DV is at least 20%. If you are looking for foods that are low in saturated fats, you want to make sure that the total saturated fats is below 5%.

The labels that you see on food products today will soon be replaced by a new format that the FDA has approved. The changes include:

  1. More dominant and obvious lettering showing the amount of calories per serving and the number of servings per container
  2. The % DV listed first
  3. The amount of added sugar included
  4. Calories from fat removed
  5. Vitamin D and potassium are now mandatory, replacing vitamin C and A which are no longer required but may be added voluntarily. This is because vitamin D and potassium are now of public health significance due to their role in bone health and cardiovascular health respectively.

Underneath the nutrition panel on food labels you will see a list of ingredients, including allergens. This list will help you avoid foods that contain ingredients that you do not want to eat for health and other reasons which may include religious restrictions.

Food labels may contain claims. These claims will fall under one of four categories including, health claims, qualified health claims, nutrient-content claims, and structure-function claims.

Health Claims

A health claim on a food label are claims that show a link between the consumption of a substance and the prevention, treatment or cure of a disease. Getting these claims approved require a very rigorous process which ultimately result in “significant scientific agreement” (SSA). SSA means that most experts in the field agree with the claim based on very strong and credible scientific evidence. For example a health claim is, “woman who consume adequate amounts of folate daily throughout their childbearing years may reduce their risk of having a child with a neural tube birth defects.”

Qualified Health Claims

A qualified health claim is a claim also linking the consumption of a substance with the prevention, treatment or cure of a disease. However the research has not gone through the scientific rigor adequate to reach SSA. Therefore a disclaimer or qualifying statement is added to the claim. For example, “One study suggests that consuming tomatoes does not reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, but one weaker, more limited study suggests that consuming tomatoes may reduce this risk. Based on these studies, FDA concludes that it is highly unlikely that tomatoes reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.”

Nutrient-Content Claims

A nutrient content claim is a claim that state or imply the level of nutrient in the food. Examples of nutrient-content statements include, “reduced fat”, “high fiber”, and “cholesterol free”. Each of these claims have a regulatory definition. For example the claim that a food is “high fiber”, means that it contains at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. All products containing nutrient-content claims must meet the standard as defined by the FDA. An implied nutrient-content claim is a suggestion that the product has more or less of a certain nutrient. For example using the statement “contains 3 grams of fat” on a meat product is a suggestion that this amount is healthy. A statement like this is fine if it satisfies the FDA’s definition of “healthy”. To be considered healthy, meat products must contain less than 5 grams per 100 grams of total fat. If a product label says, “a good source of oat bran” then the suggestion is that it has high fiber. This label would be allowed only if the product meets the definition for “good source” of fiber (2.5 to 4.9 grams per serving).

Structure-Function Claims

Structure-function claims are more often seen on dietary supplements. They describe the relationship between a substance and the structure or function of the body without reference to any disease. For example “calcium build strong bones” is an acceptable structure-function claim. However, a statement that “calcium prevents brittle bones” would suggest prevention of a disease condition. That would fall in the category of a health claim.

Reference: Thompson, J. L., Manore, M. M.  & Vaughan, L. A. (2017). The Science of Nutrition (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education.

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Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons
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Courtney Simons is a food science professor. He holds a BS degree in food science and a Ph.D. in cereal science from North Dakota State University.