In the previous 2 posts, "How To Change How We Shop" Part 1 and Part 2 I have provided recommendations for how to shop for produce, meats, eggs, fish and seafood, and packaged items. This is the last post of the series on changing how we shop, and I will tell you more about health claims on food items.
What Are Health Claims?
Health claims are statements that can be placed on food or supplement labels, which are regulated as a food and not a drug, that describe a relationship between a substance in the food or supplement and a disease or health benefit. There are two types of health claims, namely authorized health claims, which are also known as unqualified health claims, and qualified health claims.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves both of these to be placed on food labels. These claims must be supported by scientific evidence, but that is where the similarities end.
Authorized Health Claims
Authorized health claims are supported by agreements amongst qualified experts and on scientific evidence. For example, because orange juice has a lot of potassium, and there is plenty of scientific evidence confirming that consuming potassium can help reduce high blood pressure, orange juice producers can add an authorized health claim that consuming orange juice may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.
Other examples of authorized health claims include one that explains the relationship between calcium and osteoporosis. If a product contains 20% or more of the daily value of calcium per serving, and that form of calcium is easily absorbed by the body, the product can include a claim that states that “a diet adequate in calcium may help reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a degenerative bone disease” (Stewart, 2007, p. 214).
In addition, foods that contain 40 mcg or more of folic acid per serving, and no more than 100% of the daily value of vitamins A or D per serving, can add a statement that says that “healthful diets with adequate folate may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with neural tube defects” (Stewart, 2007, p. 215).
An Example: Olive Oil
Stewart (2007) explains in her book Eating Between the Lines, that the FDA approved a health claim in 2005 that could be made for pure olive oil. This health claim stated that 2 tablespoons of olive oil consumed on a daily basis could help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The claim explained that this was due to the monounsaturated fat in the olive oil, and that the consumption of olive oil needed to replace a similar amount of saturated fat from another source. In addition, the olive oil consumed should not result in an increase in the total number of calories a person consumed in a day.
Although this health claim was made for pure olive oil, it should have been made for extra-virgin olive oil or EVOO. It turns out that the healthiest type of olive oil is EVOO because it not only contains monounsaturated fat, but it also contains “polyphenols, antioxidants, and healthy fatty acids” (Stewart, 2007).
Refining the skin, pits, and olive flesh that is left over after EVOO is made makes the pure olive oil that the FDA was referring to. However, this refining process strips away the healthiest qualities of the olive oil. Stewart equated refined oil to coffee grinds that have been used over and over, and no longer produce coffee, but instead make colored water. Pure oil may have a milder taste, but the taste, quality, and health benefits come from EVOO. These components have to be added back to the refined oil, and the irony is that the resulting refined oil is not fit for consumption until EVOO is added back. In fact, the resulting refined oil without EVOO is typically used to lubricate machinery (Stewart, 2007).
Stewart (2007) explained that there are some important measures to put in place to make sure the best quality and healthiest olive oil is consumed. When purchasing olive oil she advises to look for five items:
- Look for EVOO. As just mentioned, it is the healthiest type of olive oil. Also, the more careful the process in which olives are grown and processed, the healthier the oil
- Look for single-origin EVOO. The best quality olive oils are those that have olives coming from a single origin and with a certification or approval by an agricultural agency.
- Look for higher-priced single-origin EVOO. Single origin olive oils are pricy and can range from $15 to $25 per liter. Oil that is a blend of olives from various countries is $8 per liter. Olive oil that is low quality and most possibly has other oils added to it is much cheaper.
- Look at acidity. EVOO should have an acidity level that is not higher than 0.8%.
- Look for the date the olive oil was bottled or the sell-by date indicated on the bottle. Olive oil, no matter how good, will start going rancid about a year after it is made, even if the bottle remains unopened. This means that to maximize the healthy benefits of the oil, one should purchase the freshest made oil, and consume the oils as quickly as possible. Once the oil is exposed to light and oxygen it will lose its beneficial qualities quickly. Thus, it is important that the olive oil comes in a dark glass bottle, and that it is stored away from heat and in a well-sealed bottle (Stewart, 2007).
Qualified Health Claims
Qualified health claims have support from scientific evidence, but this evidence may not be significant enough, and as a result, a disclaimer must accompany the claim. The claim may either have limited scientific evidence to back it up, or conflicting scientific evidence to back it up.
For instance, Stewart (2007) provides the example of a qualified health claim that can be used on tomatoes that states:
Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim. (p. 207)
Another example for a qualified health claim can be used on walnuts. Packaging for walnuts can include the following claim:
Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of walnuts, as part of a low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased calorie intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. (p. 217)
Health claims are added to food labels to help the consumer select healthier food options. However, as I explained by providing the example of olive oil, a health claim is not always accurate. It is important to understand that food companies are often behind health claims that are approved by the FDA. Thus, researching health claims is important to decipher their validity.
This concludes this short series on how to change how we shop. The most important takeaway is to make sure to read labels and understand what we are consuming. We should take the time to do so- it is only our health that is at stake.
Dessy, M. (2013). The Pantry Principle: How to Read the Label and Understand What’s Really In Your Food. The Woodlands, TX: Versadia Press.
Stewart, K. L. (2007). Eating Between the Lines. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.