Now that we all know what a health halo is, (if you still don’t, check out the previous post!) lets discuss the various ways companies are able to market their products using these often untrue and misleading health claims. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently put out a report entitled “Food Labeling Chaos,” which sums up exactly what is going on in our grocery stores. The report focuses on 5 specific ways marketing is used to create a health halo for a food product. In this and the following posts we will discuss these 5 ploys so you can better navigate through your local supermarket and make more informed decisions with your money and what you put into your body.
In 1990, Congress passed a law that allowed manufacturers to start using health claims for their food products. The claims had to apply to a specific nutrient and disease relationship. The law stated that the FDA must approve all claims before they are used and that the claims had to be backed by “significant scientific agreement.” To get a claim approved takes a long time; up to 540 days. Because it takes so long to get a claim approved, food companies have found creative ways around the approval process.
A common way that food companies get around the approval process is by making something known as a “structure/function” claim. A structure/function claim says that a specific nutrient in a food can benefit the body’s normal structure or function, but it does not mention the role the nutrient has in the prevention of any disease. Remember, according to the law, claims have to apply to a specific nutrient-disease relationship. This is all about wordplay. Here’s a specific example — a company must have FDA approval to use the claim:
“may help reduce the risk of heart disease”
But the company does not need approval to say:
“helps maintain a healthy heart”
Do you see the difference here? One states a specific disease, while the other just claims a benefit to the body’s normal function. The use of these structure/function claims is legal and they do not have to be approved or meet any requirements. The food with a structure/function claim could be full of saturated fat, cholesterol or sugar and still say “helps maintain a healthy heart” because of some obscure ingredient or unreliable evidence. Health claims approved by the FDA have to meet strict nutrient content requirements; there are levels the product must not exceed for fat, cholesterol and sodium as well as minimums for certain nutrients and vitamins and of course a specified minimum level for the nutrient involved in the nutrient-disease relationship.
Even more interesting is that studies have shown shoppers actually prefer products with the structure/function claims. The wording in these claims is usually softer and more positive. Compare the two claims again. Which one sounds better to you?
Next time you are in the store, make sure you read the front of the package carefully. Beware claims about immunity, which is a very common structure/function claim. If the package says it “supports a healthy immune system” or “helps strengthen your body’s defenses” or “boosts immunity”… that’s a structure/function claim. There is no specific nutrient or disease in those claims, they just simply imply the prevention of disease. Often these products boast their antioxidant vitamin content and while it’s true that severe deficiencies in these vitamins can lead to serious health problems, these products won’t make any difference in your health by boosting your immunity. And remember, they could be full of all sorts of other bad stuff and only have trace quantities of the good stuff they are advertising!
Check back soon for more on health halos and how you can avoid them!
For the full CSPI report: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food_labeling_chaos_report.pdf