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Functional Foods
Make Every Calorie Count

by Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

What is a health claim?
A health claim is a claim that states the relationship between a specific food or component of food and a disease or health-related condition. All health claims are authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 and must be supported by scientific evidence. The FDA established health claims to help consumers learn about diet and health by reading food labels. One example of an FDA-approved health claim is “Calcium may reduce the risk of osteoporosis.”

Approved health claims exist for several foods or components of foods, including the following:

  • Calcium (may reduce the risk of osteoporosis)
  • Sodium (low-sodium diets may reduce the risk of hypertension, or high blood pressure)
  • Dietary fat (low-fat diets may reduce the risk of some cancers)
  • Dietary saturated fat and cholesterol (diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease)
  • Fiber (may reduce the risk of some types of cancer)
  • Soluble fiber (may reduce the risk of heart disease)
  • Folate (may reduce a woman’s risk of having a child with neural tube birth defects)
  • Plant stanol and sterol esters (may reduce the risk of heart disease)

In 2002, the FDA decided to allow “qualified health claims” for some foods, in cases where the scientific evidence for the claim outweighs the scientific evidence against it. Three of the most recent qualified health claims involve walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids, and monounsaturated fat from olive oil. In early 2004, the FDA determined that eating walnuts may reduce the risk of heart disease when consumed as part of a low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol eating plan, as long as calorie intake is not increased. The recommended amount of walnuts is 1.5 ounces a day.

Later in 2004, the FDA issued the following qualified health claim for omega-3 fatty acids: Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. One serving of [name of food] provides [x] grams of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids. [See nutrition information for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol content.] EPA and DHA are types of omega-3 fatty acids that are found in oily fish such as salmon, lake trout, tuna, herring, mackerel, and sardines. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week.

Also in late 2004, the FDA announced the following health claim for monounsaturated fat from olive oil and reduced risk for heart disease: Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day. One serving of this product [name of food] contains [x] grams of olive oil. While olive oil is a heart-healthy fat, remember that it still contains a lot of calories (1 tablespoon has 120 calories), so be sure to consider portion size, and substitute it for other fat choices in your eating plan.

Not all health claims submitted to the FDA are approved. A proposed health claim that linked green tea with a reduced risk for certain types of cancer, for example, was not approved in 2005 after the FDA determined that not enough evidence existed to support this claim. Even more recently, the FDA prevented producers of tomatoes, tomato products, and dietary supplements from claiming that the lycopene (a type of antioxidant found in tomatoes) in their products may prevent prostate cancer. However, the FDA will allow packages of tomatoes and tomato sauce to state that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

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