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Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

What Are Nutrition Claims Really Warning You?

The commonly spotted phrases, like 'heart healthy' and 'sugar-free,' are clear to see when strolling down the grocery aisles. But what exactly are these health and nutrition claims and what are they warning you?

What Are Nutrition Claims Really Warning You?

"Heart healthy," "lowers cholesterol," and "organic" are common words found when strolling down grocery aisles. These concise statements help aid healthful decisions for quicker and more efficient grocery store runs, but what exactly are some of these health and nutrition claims on food labels and what are they really warning you?

Common Nutrition Claims on Foods

Heart Healthy
When it comes to heart healthy foods, packaging further claims to "lower cholesterol" or be a "fat-free" or "low-fat" product. Cheerios™ is a prime example of "lowers cholesterol" and was formulated based on fiber content, as adequate fiber intake has been shown to reduce cholesterol. Additionally, the intake of fat has been demonized and associated with poor heart health. "Fat-free" and "low-fat" products appeal and entice health-conscious individuals.

People often use "sugar-free" (and "fat-free") synonymously with "calorie-free." This claim is particularly attractive for individuals monitoring blood sugar levels and those trying to lose weight. However, sugar substitutes and alternative sweeteners replace sugar in such products. These sugar alternatives can create unpleasant gastrointestinal distress, especially in large amounts.

Made with Whole Grains
Choosing "whole grains" and "wheat" over white, refined products has been a simple recommendation to increase nutritional value. Although these products can be quite nutritious, it is important to stay cautious over added unwanted ingredients. For instance, a "whole grain" pancake may still contain sugar much like its traditional counterpart.

Made with Real Fruit
Although fruit juice may seem like a better choice than sugary soft drinks, juices can still contain the same amount of sugar. Even if the package claims "made with real fruit," it does not dismiss other ingredients added (as stated above describing "made with whole grains"). In addition, the amount of real fruit added can substantially vary. Trace amounts of real fruit juice still contributes to the notion of "made with real fruit."

Strengthens Immune System
Frozen vegetable and fruit juice products are top contenders with this claim on the front of its package. The claim stems from the antioxidants contained in most colorful produce. Since antioxidants are shown to protect and boost the immune system, these foods seem to play a large role in body defense. However, the totality of diet and lifestyle, not just a single product, generally has the upper hand on immune strength.

All Natural
Defining food as "natural" can be complicated, especially from a scientific standpoint. From a consumer's perspective, "all natural" products are assumed to be minimally processed and absent of any food additives. These foods are generally free from antibiotics, added sweeteners, and food colorings and flavorings. Remember, a "natural" packaged product should not take the place of fresh fruits and vegetables from the produce section.

"All natural" and "organic" are often used interchangeably. However, organic crops earn the "USDA Organic" label following established regulations regarding food growth, handling, and processing. Farmers utilize organic practices such as natural fertilizers and crop rotation. Though the organic seal is voluntary, most producers choose to utilize its availability and offering.

Buying into the Claims

Though the extensive volume of health and nutrition claims may be helpful for consumers, they should be taken with a grain of salt. The claims are general and should not be the primary deciding factor in choosing food products. When choosing "health" foods, still pay attention to the ingredient label. Select products that contain the smallest number of ingredients and that are familiar. You can find more information on nutrition labeling and regulations on the official U.S. Food and Drug Administration website here.

Organic foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Mayo Clinic. Available at:

Sydney Lappe's Photo
Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on August 11, 2016. Updated on August 16, 2016.


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