What Does “Sugar-Free” Really Mean?
You’ve seen them. You’ve probably shopped specifically for them. Food label claims are plastered all over products in grocery stores, and it’s not just the packaged and processed ones – whole fruits, veggies and proteins sometimes boast labels, too.
More than anything, food label claims are a marketing tactic. “Naturally Sweetened,” “Low-Fat,” and “Low Cholesterol” sound nice, but what do they all really mean? Let’s break it down.
There are three types of food claims legally allowed on food and supplement labels: nutrient content claims, health claims, and structure/function claims. The responsibility for ensuring the validity of the claims rests with either the manufacturer, the Food and Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission (in the case of advertising).
Nutrient Content Claims
These are food and supplement claims that highlight the level of a nutrient or substance in a product, such as “low-calorie” or “high-fiber.” Descriptors such as “free,” “high,” and “reduced” have been defined by the FDA. When you buy products with these descriptors, you can be confident the food meets the established criteria. Common descriptors and their definitions can be seen in the chart, “Health Claims Commonly Used on Food Labels.”
These are statements that refer to the relationship between a food, food component or dietary supplement and the risk of a disease or health condition. For example, milk cartons often include statements indicating that a diet high in calcium will reduce the risk of osteoporosis (a bone-degenerative disease). Another common example is orange juice products with a claim regarding vitamin C and healthy immune function.
These claims can help people choose products that will meet their dietary needs or health goals but there is one catch. The FDA reviews all health claims, but there are three different paths a manufacturer can take to include one:
A structure/function claim is one that describes the role of a nutrient or ingredient in maintaining normal structure or function in humans. They may describe general well-being, for example, “Fiber maintains bowel regularity.” Or they may describe a nutrient-deficiency disease, for example, “Vitamin C prevents scurvy.” Statements like those must also tell how common the disease is in the U.S.
Structure/function claims are not approved by the FDA – they are based on the manufacturer’s review of scientific literature. These statements aren’t usually meant to be untrue or misleading, but they can be confusing. For example, “lowers cholesterol” required FDA approval, but “helps maintain normal cholesterol levels” does not.
So what’s a shopper to do?
The easiest solution is to shop mostly for whole fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry – foods we know are good for us and are full of vitamins and minerals. But packaged foods are extremely convenient and abundant, so there’s no reason to avoid them. Besides, some packaged foods do have added health benefits we wouldn’t get from a whole version of the food. Take orange juice: An orange is high in vitamin C but lacks a lot of other critical nutrients. Orange juice is often fortified with calcium, one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the U.S.
This is where reading labels comes in. I can’t stress enough the importance of reading labels. That doesn’t just mean looking at calories per serving. Read the ingredients list and check for nutrients you’re seeking or avoiding. Just because a food product is “high in” a nutrient doesn’t mean it’s good for your health goals.
Let’s stick to our orange juice example. Orange juice isn’t just higher in calcium than an orange. It’s also much higher in sugar (and sometimes added sugar), calories, and potentially other ingredients to maintain color or freshness - whereas we know an orange is just an orange.
What are your thoughts on food labels and health claims? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!
About the F-Word
"Food" is the F-word. And the F-Word blog is all about helping you find your food-life balance. After battling an unhealthy relationship with food and body image for years, I'm dedicated to helping others avoid those misfortunes. Read on for nutrition guidance, lifestyle tips and stories from other bad-ass people who also overcame disordered eating.