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How Health Claims Can Lead to Unhealthy Choices

If you’ve ever eaten oatmeal or cereal, you’ve probably read a health claim on a food package. Health claims can be statements that tell us how a certain food will give us some health benefit, such as help us lower cholesterol or prevent disease. They can also be subtler, like a picture of a heart to suggest a food is heart healthy.4 While these claims are highly regulated by the FDA and based on sound scientific research, health claims can actually trick us into choosing foods that are less healthy for us.1

How? Let’s see how this can play out for a couple of FDA approved health claims.

Claim: “A diet low in cholesterol and low in saturated fat may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”5

To make this claim on a food’s packaging, a food has to meet the definitions for having low fat, low saturated fat and low cholesterol.2,5

One misleading example is Campbell’s Healthy Request Cream of Mushroom soup, which meets these standards and even has the words healthy request confined within a heart shape. However, it also has 820 mg of sodium for just one cup of soup! The American Heart Association recommends that the general population limit sodium intake to 1,500 mg per day.6 One cup of Campbell’s healthy request soup meets 50% of your recommended sodium intake. A high sodium diet can result in high blood pressure, which is a big risk factor for heart disease. Bottom line: this soup is certainly not heart healthy.7

Claim:Fiber, in addition to a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, can help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.”

According to the FDA, for a product to make this claim it must contain a grain, fruit or vegetable, and meet the definitions of low fat, low cholesterol, low saturated fat and contain at least 0.6 grams of soluble dietary fiber per serving.3

One tricky product is Kashi Heart to Heart Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal, which makes the claim it “supports healthy cholesterol,” helps “maintain healthy arteries”, and will “promote healthy blood pressure” all written out on the front of the box. However, the second item listed on the ingredient is evaporated cane juice, AKA sugar.8 That means that besides oatmeal, sugar is the second biggest ingredient in the product by volume. While the oatmeal has enough fiber and low sodium to make these health claims, its high added sugar content makes it much less heart healthy. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars in the diet to 100 calories (25 grams) for women and 150 calories (37.5 grams) for men.9 One packet of Kashi Heart to Heart Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal equals 33-50% of a person’s added sugar limit for the day, all before your morning cup of coffee. To truly be heart healthy, choose an oatmeal with no added sugars and sweeten it up with fresh fruit and if need be a drizzle of honey.

Take home message: don’t be fooled by health claim labels on food products. While they may be a good way to pick out products in the vast array of the grocery isle, don’t stop there. Be sure to consider these 5 important items on the nutrition label: 1. calories, 2. sugar content, 3. types and amounts of fat, 4. ingredients, 5. fiber content. Remember, the healthiest foods sometimes don’t even have packaging or health claims. Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables is always a safe bet.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Hasler CM. Health claims in the United States: an aid to the public or a source of confusion?. J Nutr. 2008;138(6):1216S-20S.
  2. Food Labels: Nutrient Content Claims.
  3. Anderson J, Young L, & Perryman S. Understanding the Food Label. Colorado State University Extension. Published December 2010.
  4. Food Labeling Guide. The Food & Drug Administration.
  5. Guidance for Industry: A Food Labeling Guide (11. Appendix C: Health Claims). The Food & Drug Administration. Published January 2013.
  6. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Sodium. American Heart Association. Published November 11, 2014.
  7. What Are the Risk Factors for Heart Disease?. National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute. Published July 10, 2014.
  8. Kashi Heart To Heart Instant Oatmeal, Apple Cinnamon.
  9. Added Sugars. American Heart Association. Published November 19, 2014.