Health claims are an important part of food marketing. They allow brands to highlight what they are most proud of, and they help consumers navigate the many food choices available in supermarkets today.
Health claims are also important to registered dietitians who are providing patients with diet recommendations every day. It’s essential for us to know which products support the challenges our patients are dealing with like celiac disease, diabetes or heart disease.
Contrary to popular opinion, registered dietitians are not the food police. Generally speaking, we believe that most foods have a place in a healthy diet and that moderation is key. However, there are certain health claims used by food manufacturers that can turn a dietitian off. Here’s your guide to food labeling from the registered dietitian’s perspective.
Nix the negativity
“We now live in a culture of fearful foodies,” said author, blogger and Boston University Clinical Associate Professor Joan Salge Blake, Ed.D, RDN, LDN, FAND. “Food shopping is now a stressful event for consumers because they are confused about what’s good for them. What are we teaching consumers when we unnecessarily label foods, like gluten-free bananas, for example?”
Blake explains that in the 1990s, nutrition claims were celebrated with phrases like "high in calcium" or "great source of protein." Today, the messages have turned negative with claims like "no preservatives" or "free of pesticides."
“We went from being proud of our food system to being scared of the unknown," Blake said. "Food should be a joyous thing. We have to blaze the trail back to positive messaging on food.”
Dietitians appreciate when food manufacturers print clear messages on the front label. Misleading claims make our jobs harder and can result in confusion for our patients.
Chrissy Caroll, MPH, RD, LDN, ACSM-cPT, author and blogger at Snacking with Sneakers, tends to steer clear of products with the claim “no refined sugar,” but not for the reasons you might expect.
“The general consumer isn’t familiar with the different types of sugars," she said. "They will often misinterpret ‘no refined sugar’ to mean ‘no sugar’—and there is almost always another form of sugar in the product such as honey, maple syrup or another natural sweetener.”
A simple misinterpretation like this could have a major ripple effect in patients living with an illness like diabetes, for example.
Steer clear of the top offenders
You’ve heard it all before, but it bears repeating: It shouldn’t come as a surprise that dietitians have high standards for the ingredients and nutrition facts panel on food products. Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, is a nutrition consultant, author and blogger at Better is the New Perfect. For Ward, excessive added sugar, a very high sodium count and low fiber levels are deal breakers.
“A low fiber level in grains can mean that the product is highly refined,” said Ward. “I also shy away from products with a lot of preservatives, artificial colors and partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. PHO levels are not always accurately reflected on the food label, as currently you can have up to .49 grams per serving of trans fat and call it zero.”
With growing amounts of misinformation about nutrition available online, the job of the dietitian has gotten harder. Our patients and clients often come to us with misconceived notions about food and food laws, and we end up spending our initial consultations disproving those notions rather than spending important time discussing the clients’ needs.
For Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, an award-winning author, educator and founder of School Meals That Rock, accuracy is the name of the game.
“I will not buy or recommend brands that make unwarranted claims," she said. "For example, I avoid claims like gluten-free or GMO-free when the category of food never has gluten (gluten-free butter, for instance) or when there are no GMO varieties grown in the US (like GMO-free strawberries).”
It’s vital that the food industry and dietitians work in harmony to make sure claims are sound, helpful and accurate. That’s why more food companies are adding dietitians to their marketing teams—either as staff or consultants. Together, brands and dietitians are a powerful team that can make America healthier, better educated and happier, one great health claim at a time.
Stephanie Ferrari and Sheri Kasper, are cofounders of FRESH Communications, a Boston-based consultancy exclusively servicing the food and beverage industries, with an emphasis on health and wellness. FRESH services include media relations, brand ambassadorship, recipe development, health professional relations and more. Find them on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.