5 of the Most Misleading Nutrition Claims

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 30, 2009

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You’re in the grocery store selecting food for your family and you see a product claiming to have a certain nutrition benefit. Are you confused by it? Skeptical? Not sure exactly what the claim means?

Join the club.

Having worked in the food industry, I know what’s behind popular food claims. And while I don’t necessarily fault food companies, who basically follow the FDA’s lead, I do think that consumers aren’t always getting what they think they are getting.

Here are 5 nutrition claims that I believe lead consumers to believe something that just isn’t so.

1) All Natural: According to a recent survey of over 1000 consumers, products labeled “natural” were considered more eco-friendly than those labeled “organic.” Basically, people trust the “natural” label more than the “organic” one.

The truth is that there are FDA regulations for the use of the word “organic” in product labeling and advertising and none for “natural” (see organic posts for more details on buying organic). The FDA has not officially defined the term “natural.” In fact, they stick to their 1993 policy: “FDA has not established a formal definition for the term ‘natural’, however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

So just because a product says it’s “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s more nutritious than any other item. For example, cookies and baked goods contain “natural” sugar and white flour. Your best bet is to check the ingredient line to see what’s actually in the product. “Natural” really doesn’t tell you much.

2) Trans-fat Free: If trans-fat were a celebrity, it would never work in Hollywood again. Its negative publicity and health recommendations coupled with newer mandatory labeling on packages (starting in 2006) has consumers concerned. So when consumers see a “trans-fat free” food label, they feel good about buying it.

What consumers may not know is that most food companies have worked trans-fats out of their products so virtually all packaged goods are trans-fat free. Most often trans-fat is being replaced with saturated fat making the product only marginally better. It’s also important to remember that the FDA allows a trans-fat free claim if a product contains less than 0.5g of trans-fat. So check the ingredient line for key words like “hydrogenated vegetable oil” if you want to stay 100% clear of trans-fats.

3. Made with/good source of: I touched on what a “good source” means in my post about Juicy Juice claims. Basically, when you see that a product claims that it is a “good source” of a specific nutrient you know it contains at least 10% of the Daily Value. If it’s a type of ingredient like whole grains, (the claim is “made with whole grains”) it usually contains at least 10% of the Daily Recommended Value per serving. For example, the packaging on Nutri Grain waffles says that they are made with 5 grams of whole grains. If a consumer doesn’t know this, they might think the waffle is a whole grain product when it’s not. Instead it contains about 1/3rd of a whole grain serving.


Look for the Whole Grains Council’s whole grain stamp which means the product has at least 1/2 a serving of whole grains. The stamp has the grams listed on it (see right).

4. Contains omega-3 fatty acids: If you’ve been reading my posts you already know there are two very different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that comes from plant products like flax, walnuts and canola oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) that come mainly from marine sources like salmon and tuna. While ALA is beneficial for heart health, DHA and EPA provide a multitude of benefits including optimal brain development for children. If someone buys a product claiming to contain omega-3 fatty acids, they might think they are getting all of the beneficial fat that they need when the product really only contains ALA.

So check the label to see if there is DHA in the product. You can also check the ingredient line to see what type of omega-3 fatty acid it is. For more on this topic see What Most Parents Don’t Know About Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

5. No added sugars: Someone buying a product with the claim “no added sugars” might think they are getting a product that doesn’t contain sugar. What the claim really means is that no sugar or sugar-like ingredients are added during processing. If someone desires a product without sugar they should keep their eyes peeled for the “sugar-free” claim which means the product has less than 0.5g of sugar per serving.

Once you understand what nutrition claims really mean, they can actually help you choose food that you want for your family.

Confused about a specific food claim? Leave a comment or submit it through contact us.

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