Health Claims on Food Labels: Not So Reliable

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has loosened restrictions on how much scientific proof is required before possible health benefits appear on food labels. For example, the FDA now allows sellers of certain nuts to claim that "Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of some nuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease." Sellers of seafood that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids will want to claim that their products prevent heart attacks, and so forth, so we will probably see a proliferation of these statements on food labels in the years ahead.

A manufacturer cannot claim that a product prevents heart attacks just because it contains nuts. For example, putting nuts in ice cream will not allow a manufacturer to claim that ice cream with nuts prevents heart attacks. The claims are supposed to help you understand that the specific food only helps to prevent heart attacks when a person does not take in too many calories, does not eat too much saturated and partially hydrogenated fats, and does eat lots of vegetables and other foods derived from plants. You cannot say that eating nuts prevents heart attacks, but you can say that eating nuts as part of a healthful diet helps to prevent heart attacks.

Many products that advertise zero grams of trans fat on their labels still have partially hydrogenated oils in their ingredient lists, which means that they DO contain trans fats despite their label claims.

US labeling laws allow a manufacturer to claim ZERO if there is less than one-half gram (.5g) of partially hydrogenated oil per serving. That doesn't sound like much, but if a serving size is one teaspoon or one cracker, it can add up to a lot of trans fats in a tub of margarine, a bowl of cereal or a bag of chips. I think the claims are deceptive, but the manufacturers are not breaking the law. Use the list of ingredients as your source of information, not the nutrition panel or the "Zero Trans Fat" claims. If the words "partially hydrogenated" appear in the list of ingredients, look for another brand.

Many manufacturers are developing new formulations of their popular brands that contain NO partially hydrogenated oils. Seek these products out and vote with your pocketbook.


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