Last week, the Food and Drug Administration warned 17 food companies that the marketing claims on some of their products weren't in line with government rules. If you buy ice cream marketed as having "zero grams trans fat," for example, but it still contains a significant amount of saturated and total fat, that information is supposed to be prominent. The letters are part of the FDA's move to address the confusion surrounding front-of-package claims, an effort that will include a standardization of how this information is presented.
Until it's all sorted out, there are plenty of food labels that are difficult to decipher, say dietitians and nutrition experts. Here are some claims that warrant a closer look before you buy:
1. Foods claiming to "support your immune system." A food can carry this claim if it contains certain levels of nutrients—including vitamins C and A—that, when deficient in the diet, can negatively affect the immune system. But that doesn't mean that adding those nutrients to an already adequate diet will supercharge your immunity or protect you from the flu. Moreover, it doesn't guarantee that the food making the claim is healthful by other measures or unique in its powers. Green Giant has an "Immunity Blend" variety of boxed frozen vegetables, a combination of cauliflower florets, carrots, and dried cranberries. All veggies and fruits contain antioxidants, not only this particular mixture, points out Lisa Sutherland, a research assistant professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. (The Immunity Blend also includes a butter sauce and added sugar.)
Another example of such a claim: Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies, which came under fire last year for a yellow front-of-package banner proclaiming that the cereal "helps support your child's immunity," referring to the presence of vitamins A, B, C, and E. It did indeed have those nutrients, but 40 percent of the cereal's calories come from sugar. (The San Francisco city attorney demanded proof of an immune-system boost, and Kellogg dropped the claims.) The bottom line: The best way to get antioxidants is through a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables, no special combo required.
[But read Why an All-Superfoods Diet Is a Mistake.]
2. Sugary foods that advertise their virtues. Cocoa Krispies isn't alone; plenty of sugary cereals and other foods tout the presence of other nutrients. It's not that sugar is evil, but it is caloric, and you shouldn't be fooled by the "health halo" that hovers over some foods pointing out the presence of other nutrients. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, points out Fruity Pebbles cereal, which does indeed contain the vitamin D prominently advertised on the front of the package. In fact, it contains 25 percent of the day's recommended intake of vitamin D (40 percent if you pair it with a half cup of skim milk). Physicians and public-health authorities generally agree most of us need more vitamin D, and it can be tough to find in foods. But 37 percent of Fruity Pebbles' calories come from sugar, which may not be what parents are looking for in a cereal. (And it does not, despite the name, include any fruit.)
Kids' juices are also famous for this, says Sutherland. The front of Honest Kids Super Fruit Punch's pouch notes that it includes no high-fructose corn syrup. It does, however, include sugar—10 grams, or 40 calories, of it. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says that fruit juice can be a part of a healthful diet when consumed in moderation (up to 4 to 6 ounces per day) but that it is no better than whole fruit for kids. Juice drinkers miss the fruit's fiber entirely.
3. Treats that are "made with real fruit." There may be plenty of good reasons to eat snacks making this claim, but the fruit content is rarely one of them. That phrase "would lead one to believe you are getting a dose of natural vitamins, minerals, and fiber," writes Sari Greaves, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, in an E-mail. To find out how fruit-centric the snack really is, she suggests checking the ingredients, which are listed in descending order by weight. So the first few ingredients "tell all," she says.