False Claims on Mouthwash? How to Decipher Product Labels

Here's a guide to the most popular nutrition and health claims on labels and what they mean.

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When choosing among the hundreds of products on supermarket shelves, many of us use labels as a guide, selecting an "all-natural" cereal over one that's not, or the mouthwash that promises to remove plaque and promote healthy gums—perhaps even saving us a trip to the dentist—over one that merely freshens breath. Unfortunately, many of these labels exaggerate health benefits or are downright deceptive. Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to three mouthwash makers telling them they can't claim that their products prevent gum disease when that hasn't been proven in studies. Earlier in the week, the Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the maker of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, accusing the company of "making false and unsubstantiated claims that [its] products will prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction," according to a statement issued by the agency.

[Read: 5 Food Package Claims That Deserve a Double Take.]

"We're starting to see a government crackdown on products with misleading labels," says Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group for nutrition, health, and food safety. "But we'd still like to see Congress strengthen the laws on food labeling." Oddly enough, some of the labels on supermarket products have strict legal definitions, such as "organic," while others, such as "all-natural," don't. You'd need to read the label, for example, to know whether an "all-natural" tomato sauce really has no artificial ingredients. Here's a guide to common label claims and whether they're likely to be deceptive.

"Supports immune system" or "for brain development." These are medical claims that the FDA says put a product into the category of "drug" rather than food or supplement. If something is a drug, it must go through a rigorous FDA approval process with clinical studies monitored by the agency. Last year, the FDA asked Kellogg's to remove "now helps support your child's immunity" from the labels of Rice Krispies and Coca Krispies, a statement added at the height of the swine flu pandemic. Also last year, Juicy Juice came under FDA fire for claiming the juice was "for brain development." A good rule of thumb: Be wary of any product you can buy without a prescription that promises to fix or prevent a medical problem, says Silverglade.

[Read: 8 Fixes Nutritionists Want on Food Labels.]

"Good source of vitamins." Any product, regardless of its sugar, salt, and fat content, can carry a vitamin claim if it contains a certain amount of fortification. "Excellent source" means a product has more than 20 percent of the recommended daily allowance of that vitamin; "good source" means it has more than 10 percent but less than 20 percent; and "fortified" means it has at least 10 percent, according to the FDA's website. But don't mistake fortification for nutritious. Products that are fortified, nutrition experts agree, are usually missing hundreds of other health-promoting nutrients found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed plant foods.

[Read: Popular but Dangerous: 3 Vitamins That Can Hurt You.]

"Zero trans fats." This doesn't mean a product is completely free of trans fatty acids, a type of fat known to be the worst kind for your heart. It just means that a product can't contain more than half a gram of trans fats per serving. "The kicker is that many of us eat more than a serving at a time," says Silverglade, like that large blueberry muffin that contains two or three government-standardized servings. "We also see products high in saturated fat that are labeled 'no trans fats,' and this is misleading, since saturated fats are nearly as bad for your heart as trans fats," he says. Bottom line: Read the label to check for saturated fat content and scan the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated oils, which are trans fats.

"All-natural." This is supposed to mean that a product contains no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed, but that's not always the case. Products with the "all-natural" label that contain meat or poultry are legally required to meet this definition, says Silverglade, since they're regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which strictly defines the term. All other foods are regulated by the FDA, which allows manufacturers to define "all-natural" however they see fit, he adds. Thus, you can probably trust that "all-natural" chicken soup isn't made with artificial ingredients, but the same manufacturer's "all-natural" vegetable soup may be another story, Silverglade says.