Navigating Health Claims Through Science

How can consumers understand the vast number of nutrition and health claims out there?


I just got back from Houston, where the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics held its annual Food and Nutrition Convention and Expo. FNCE is the world's largest meeting of food and nutrition experts, with this year's attendance at around 7,000 individuals from 38 countries. Experts included registered dietitians, nutrition science researchers, policy makers, healthcare providers and industry leaders. One of the main purposes of the meeting is to address key issues affecting the health of all Americans.

On the plane ride to Houston, I finally looked at the program's schedule to decide which sessions I would attend. With more than 140 research and educational presentations, lectures, debates, panel discussions and culinary demonstrations, many topics were to be covered, including obesity, diabetes, food allergies and menu labeling. I immediately felt overwhelmed. How can I possibly stay on top of everything that is going on in the field of nutrition?

This got me thinking: If this is how I feel, how can my patients and the consumers, whose professions don't involve nutrition, digest all this information? They must feel overwhelmed and bombarded by the media, especially with attention grabbing topics, including gluten-free and detox diets, cleanses and low fat versus high fat. How do they decipher fact from fiction? Every other day there's a new fad, and many individuals who want to lose weight are ready to jump in feet first.

When the conference began, one of the first things I did was visit the exhibit hall. I love to learn about new brands and products and to see what companies are up to. With 350 exhibitors, it's a lot of ground to cover. Again, this got me thinking about my patients and consumers. This time, I thought about how they must feel in the supermarket, when they're bombarded with shelves and shelves of food choices. How do they know which product is really best for them, and how do they know if the claims on the label matter? How do they not get confused?

As a registered dietitian, I have always felt it's my responsibility to communicate health messages to the public in a way that makes sense. Sure, I might have a personal opinion on the topic, and when I share that point, I disclose that it's my opinion and nothing more. Other times, I talk about what I observe in my practice with patients and give anecdotal recommendations. But for me, the bottom line is science. I look to science to educate and help me to help educate others. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, science is defined as, "knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation."

When a new health claim arises, I look for the science. I first ask if there's research to support that claim – and not research from just one study, but from many? Is it a peered reviewed study? Is the study double blind and controlled? How many participants were there – ten, fifty? The length of the study needs to be considered, too. Did it span four weeks or four years? And were the participants humans or rats? Personally, I don't really care who conducted the study or who funded it, as long as it was well-designed. Trust me, I know this all can be very confusing. It's hard to understand research, especially if you aren't trained to do so.

However, I do think all consumers should be thinking about research. When reading blogs and articles online or watching a sensational television talk show, they should question whether the information being shared is purely opinion or based on sound science. They can also look at who is presenting the information and what their credentials are. Are they really qualified to speak or write about a topic to begin with? Have they been trained to interpret research?

Believe me, I think most of this responsibility should be placed on the shoulders of health professionals. We have a commitment to the public to communicate science – not just our personal views or agenda. Maybe if health professionals were more aligned, the consumers wouldn't be so confused and overwhelmed.

Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.