understanding food packaging claims

Understanding Food Claims

Claims are snippets of information that often entice us to buy a product.  They are everywhere, from advertising to product packaging.  Claims are especially prevalent on food packages: “contains real fruit”, “no artificial colors”, and “may help reduce the risk of heart disease” are examples of food claims you can encounter while grocery shopping.  Understanding food claims can help you make healthier food choices.

What is a claim?

A claim is an advertising statement designed to make us want to buy a product. And while claims are marketing statements, United States Federal Law requires that claims must be “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence.”1  However, there have been cases where a claim has been found to be deceptive, and when that happens the company marketing the product has to remove it immediately and face potential legal and financial consequences.

In the case of food, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) share jurisdiction over claims made by manufacturers of food products.  Food products have specific requirements that they must meet in order to have a food claim on its packaging.  Specific requirements for claims are found in the electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR).2

Examples of Common Food Claims

“Nutrient Content” claims are food claims based on an ingredient.  A company can make these claims simply by including (or excluding) a specific amount of an ingredient.

understanding food claims example nutrient content food claims

Common “Nutrient Content” claims found on food packaging:

“Excellent source of _____”

  • Product must contain 20% or more of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of the nutrient per serving3
  • “High” and “rich in” can replace “excellent”

“Good source of _____”

  • Product must contain 10-19% or more of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) of the nutrient per serving3
  • “Contains” and “provides” can replace “good”

“Low Sodium”

  • Product must contain 140 mg or less sodium per serving4
  • “Little sodium,” “contains a small amount of sodium” and “low source of sodium” can replace “low sodium”

“Reduced _____”

  • Product must contain at least 25% less of the nutrient than the comparative product5
  • Apples to calories, sugar, sodium, and fat
  • This does not mean that the product is “low” in the nutrient.  It simply means that it has been reduced compared to another product (often the “original” version)

“Made with _____”

  • Product contains “_____” ingredient
  • Claim gives no indication of ingredient quantity

“No _____”

  • Product does not contain “_____” ingredient
  • Claim gives no indication that product does not contain similar ingredients

Using “Nutrient Content” food claims to make healthier food choices

Nutrient content food claims can be helpful to identify healthier foods especially if you are trying to purchase “low sodium” foods or products that do not contain specific ingredients.  However, it is important to understand food claims because they can be misleading.  For example, if a food that claims “baked with real fruit,” make sure you read the ingredients!  Is the food contain mostly fruit or does it contain just a small amount?  Either could be the case.

Understanding Ingredient Based “Health” Food Claims

Food claims tied to a specific health outcome are called “Health” food claims.  Similar to nutrient based food claims, a company can make health claims by including a certain amount of a specific ingredient.  The FDA allows ingredient based “health” food claims that they believe are sufficiently supported by publicly available scientific evidence.

understanding food claims example health claims

Common “Health” claims found on food packaging:

“May reduce risk of heart disease”6

  • Any food* containing at least 0.6 grams of soluble fiber per serving may make this claim
  • *Food must also meet the requirements for “low fat,” “low saturated fat” and “low cholesterol”
  • Example: “Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods, and low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may help reduce the risk of heart disease”7

understanding food claims example health claims

“Can help lower cholesterol”8

  • Any food* containing 0.75 grams soluble fiber per serving from whole oats or barley can make this claim
  • Any food* containing 1.7 grams of soluble fiber per serving from psyllium husk may make this claim
  • *Food must also meet the requirements for “low fat,” “low saturated fat” and “low cholesterol”
  • Example: “Can help lower cholesterol as part of a heart healthy diet”9

Read the small print on ingredient based health food claims

Ingredient based “health” food claims are easy to identify because of their asterisk (*) or small print.  This is because eating the food is not enough to provide the health benefit.  Look on the side of the packaging to read the full claim.  The claim will often state that eating the food can or may or help to provide the health benefit if it is combined with an overall healthier diet.

Understanding food claims can help you make healthier food choices

At best, understanding food claims can help educate you about a product to make healthier choices. But remember, the primary purpose of a claim is to compel you to purchase the product.  Always read the ingredient list to understand exactly what is in the product before you purchase it.

To learn more about food claims, check out some of our food claims evaluations where claims have been decoded and evaluated.

Pin for later reference:

References:

  1. Federal Trade Commission, Truth in Advertising (link)
  2. Federal Requirements for Food Labeling, electronic Code of Federal Regulations (link)
  3. Requirements for “Excellent Source” claims §101.54(b) and “Good Source” claims §101.54(c), (link)
  4. Claim requirements for sodium content of foods: Low Sodium §101.61(b)(4), (link)
  5. Requirements for “Reduced” Claims: Calorie – 25% §101.60(b)(4), (link), Sugar – 25% §101.60(c)(5), (link), Sodium – 25% §101.61(b)(6), (link), Fat – 25% §101.62(b)(4), (link)
  6. Claim requirements for fruits, vegetables, and grain products that contain fiber, particularly soluble fiber, and risk of coronary heart disease. §101.77, (link)
  7. Organic Triscuit package claim
  8. Requirements for soluble fiber claims from certain foods and risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) §101.81, (link)
  9. Original Cheerios package claim
  10. Requirements for calcium, vitamin D, and osteoporosis claims §101.72, (link)
  11. Claim requirements for dietary lipids and cancer §101.73, (link). “Low fat” and “extra lean” claim requirements are detailed in §101.62, (link)

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