• An aisle in a grocery store shelves full of food items.

When looking for a healthier food option for you and your family, what words or phrases stand out to you when determining if a food product is healthy or not? If the phrases that popped into your head include "reduced sodium," "low calorie," or "fat-free," you may have been misled by powerful marketing companies looking to make a profit. With consumers becoming more health-conscious in their everyday lives, food manufacturers often use misleading nutrition claims to persuade individuals to buy their products, making them believe they are getting the healthier option. When in reality, consumers may be purchasing highly processed, empty calorie foods that could lead to unwanted health outcomes. Therefore, it is important for the consumer to learn about the tips and tricks food marketing companies use in their products, as well as becoming aware of what to look for and what the food claims really mean.

Types of food packaging claims:

The types of claims and who regulates them is an important piece of the puzzle when understanding the labels on food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses an intensive, evidence-based process to regulate claims on food packaging.1 The FDA does this in attempts to educate and protect the general public from misleading, unethical practices supported by big food manufacturers.1 There are 3 major types of food claims represented on food packaging, each following a specific set of requirements: Health Claims, Structure/Function Claims and Nutrient Content Claims.2

Health Claims:

Claims that describe the relationship between a food or a food component and a reduced risk of a disease or health-related condition.3 Health claims are tightly regulated by the FDA. They must undergo a long process before being approved by the FDA. The FDA regulates a health claim by using a scientific agreement statement (SSA).3 A scientific agreement statement is developed when qualified experts come together and review the existing science publicly available that either supports or debunks the potential health claim.1 This SSA process allows the FDA to either accept or deny a specific health claim. If a health claim is accepted by the FDA, you can ensure there is strong scientific evidence that supports the health claim and that the health claim follows these standards:

Health Claim Standards1:

  1. Must contain BOTH elements of a food or food component AND a disease or health-related condition.
  2. Are limited in what they can say about disease reduction.
  3. CANNOT include statements regarding disease diagnosis, a cure for disease, or a specific treatment for a disease.
  4. They are REQUIRED to be reviewed and evaluated by the FDA.

Common Health Claims4:

  • "Diets low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure, a disease associated with many factors."
  • "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day many reduce the risk of heart disease."
  • "Adequate calcium and vitamin D as part of a healthful diet, along with physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life."

Structure/Function Claims:

Describes the specific role of a certain nutrient on the structure or function in the human body.3 These are typically seen in dietary supplements and conventional food items. Structure/Function claims are regulated by the FDA but are NOT pre-approved by the FDA before they hit the market for consumers to buy. Meaning that companies can put out a true or false structure/function claim on a product before the FDA has approved or denied its truthfulness.

Common Structure/Function Claims3:

  • "Calcium builds strong bones."
  • "Fiber maintains bowel regularity."

Nutrient Content Claims:

These claims relate to the specific amount or comparative standard of a nutrient in a food product, these are intended to showcase a health benefit from the food.3,5 Any nutrition claims not in the Nutrition Facts Panel would be considered a nutrient content claim.1 These are perhaps the most common claims seen on popular food items that serve the greatest health misrepresentation to the public. Nutrient Content claims are regulated by the FDA but are NOT pre-approved by the FDA before they hit the market for consumers to buy.

Common Nutrient Content Claims6:

  • Calorie-free, reduced fat, low sodium, natural, high fiber, high in-, good source of-, gluten-free, fat-free, less sugar, fortified, enriched, lean, cholesterol free, low cholesterol, unsalted, lightly salted, good source of fiber and many more are all common examples of nutrient content claims that are plastered on the front of a food item, deeming it "healthy."

This Means That: Popular Nutrient Content Claims and What They Mean:

After reviewing what nutrient content claims are, let's breakdown the most common claims seen on products to get a glimpse of what they actually mean5-8:

This That
"Calorie-Free" Less than 5 calories
"Lean" Less than 10g fat, 4.5g of saturated fat
Fat-free or sugar-free" Less than 1/2 gram of fat or sugar
"Good source of" Provides at least 10% daily value of a specific vitamin or nutrient
"Light or lite" 1/3rd fewer calories than the usual food, half the fat of usual food
"Low calorie" Less than 40 calories
"Low cholesterol" <20 mg of cholesterol, 2 grams or less of saturated fat
"Low sodium" <140 mg of sodium
"Natural" No added artificial or synthetic ingredients
"Organic" At least 95% of ingredients are organic
"Reduced" <25% of specified nutrient or calories than the usual product

From this list of popular phrases seen on food, it's important to recognize that the words showcased on a food product don't exactly tell the entire story. Marketing companies plaster easy-to-read claims on food to persuade buyers into purchasing their product. Instead of focusing on the catchy phrases and claims on the front of the food package, turn the product over and take a glimpse at the Nutrition Facts Label to ensure you are getting the health benefits you are paying for:

What to look for on the Nutrition Facts Label:

  • Check for: serving size and servings per container - all the nutrition information is based on serving size.
  • Check for: calories - the calories listed is the amount PER one serving of the food product.
  • Limit: total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and sodium - you want the percent of these nutrients to be LOW, a low amount is 5% or less of the daily value.
  • Get enough of: dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, vitamin D and iron - if the nutrient is 5% of the daily value it is considered a low source, if the nutrient is 20% of the daily value it is considered a high source.
  • High protein: if you are looking for a food item with adequate protein, an item that has >5g is considered a good source of protein.

*The % Daily Value is based on a standardized 2,000 calorie diet and refers to the amount of specific nutrient in a serving of the food product.9


Health claims are tightly regulated by the FDA and are backed by scientific evidence ensuring strong confidence that what they are claiming are true. Structure/function and Nutrient Content Claims are not pre-approved by the FDA and are often misleading when plastered on a conventional food package or dietary supplement. The next time you find yourself at the grocery store, pay close attention to the claims placed on the front of the food package and compare it to the actual nutrient information on the back to see if they compare. Understanding the true meaning of these claims can help you better achieve your healthy-eating goals.


  1. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Food Labeling Health Claims FAQS. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/questions-and-answers-…. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  2. Klein N. Introduction to food product claims. FDA Reader. https://www.fdareader.com/blog/2018/12/14/introduction-to-food-product-…. Published November 21, 2022. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  3. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Label claims for conventional foods and dietary supplements. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/label-claims-conventio…. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  4. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Authorized health claims that meet significant scientific agreement. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/authorized-health-clai…. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  5. Wessler K. Watch for red flags in nutrition claims. OSF HealthCare Blog. https://www.osfhealthcare.org/blog/watch-for-red-flags-in-nutrition-cla…. Published February 10, 2022. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  6. 14 common food package claims. Mayo Clinic Health System. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-heal…. Published September 18, 2019. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  7. Food Packaging claims. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrit…. Published January 24, 2023. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  8. Understanding Food Labels. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-label-guide/. Published February 2, 2023. Accessed March 4, 2023.
  9. Learn how the nutrition facts label can help you improve your health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/strategies-guidelines/nutrition-facts-lab…. Published May 25, 2021. Accessed March 31, 2023.

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