Product labels are a standard feature on food packaging, beverages and supplements in the United States. For some people, this information is essential for health planning, but for others, it simply serves as general information to help stay within caloric limits.


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Historically, labeling on food items did not exist in a formal sense until 1969. Prior to that time, government agencies had been advised to issue guidance for labeling ingredients and caloric content of some food items following outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the late 1800s.

Even as this was the case, pre-packaged food items did not play a large part in the diets of Americans until relatively recently, meaning the need for labeling was not as widespread then as it is today.

Changes began to occur in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln ordered the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This agency would eventually begin regulating the production of certain food products, and in doing so, it would spur the creation and regulation of nutrient claims labeling on food item packaging.

Many years later, the 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was convened, and it was decided that product labeling standards needed to be codified.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was tasked with creating regulations and guidance regarding claims that can be made and information that must be included on food packaging and supplement labeling. Final regulations were issued in 1973 after years of discussion between government agencies and food and supplement producers.

Understanding Nutrition Labels And Nutrient Content Claims

When an ingredients label makes a nutrient content claim, the data behind the claim must be validated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Nutrition claims must also fall within certain guidelines set out by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

This law regulates the definitions of certain claims, including words like “good”, “low” and “reduced” based on percentages of daily recommended values.

Furthermore, according to 21 CFR 101.3(a), packaging must state the identity of a supplement, the net quantity of the package’s contents, the nutritional content, the list of ingredients and the name of the manufacturer, packager or distributor.

The Three Basic Types Of Nutrition Claims

Due to the sheer volume of different food products available today along with the complexities involved in manufacturing and processing food items and supplements, standards need to be in place regarding what information is presented and how this information can be presented on package labeling. To simplify this issue, the FDA allows three basic types of nutrition content claims that are considered for review.

The first type is a health claim in which the labeling states that a substance in the product interacts with a specific medical condition or health-related issue.

In order to issue an authoritative statement regarding health claims based on information recognized by the National Academy of Sciences to be true, the manufacturer will need to submit a notification to the FDA to receive clearance to include such statements. This does not apply to nutritional supplements which are not able to take advantage of authoritative statements rules.

Credit: Dean Hochman

The second type of claim is a nutrient content claim. This claim will need to meet criteria issued by the FDA for relative value in comparison to established values. This is where terms like “low sodium” must be relative to the existing level of sodium in a comparative product. In order to qualify as truthful, the low sodium claim must denote that the sodium level of the product is at least 140 milligrams per 50 grams of food.

The third type of claim is a structure or function claim. This claim does not outright state that a food or supplement does anything for health on its own, but it can state factual medical information like calcium builds strong bones.

If the product contains calcium, it is ok for the consumer to imply that the product containing calcium may help with bone strength based on the function claim; however, the label itself is not saying that the product builds strong bones, only that calcium does, which is a proven and accepted scientific fact.

What Are Food Manufacturers Allowed To Say On A Food Product Label?

Health claims on food labels are strictly regulated so as to not give off the appearance of an item containing health benefits for which it has not been tested. Health claims examples may include things like stating that a product can cure or reverse a specific health condition or that a food item or supplement improves a health condition.

If the FDA has not reviewed and cleared a food item or supplement to provide a factual health claim, supplement makers must inform the consumer.

Since the FDA is tasked with evaluating and validating claims regarding the medical efficacy of items sold as cures or preventative medicines, health claims on food labels must state that the FDA has not evaluated claims made and that the item is not intended to cure, treat or prevent any disease.

This is particularly important when concerning nutritional supplements as supplements are often sold in health product sections of retail stores.

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