When our government developed the current food labeling system, guidelines stated that any health claims on food packaging must pass strict scientific review. As a result, you could assume that the benefits listed on food labels were well established. But now guidelines about food claims have been relaxed considerably. You need to read the "fine print," along with the claim.

Previously, food label regulations required that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approve any claim about reduced disease risk that appeared on packaged food. Significant scientific agreement and many sound studies linking the food to the health benefit were needed. The 13 claims authorized by the FDA under these regulations include notices such as calcium lessens osteoporosis, low-sodium diets decrease high blood pressure risk, and diets rich in fruits and vegetables reduce cancer risk. Not only are these claims based on solid evidence: The FDA sets specific limits on what foods can carry them. For example, a food that is a good source of soluble fiber can't claim to lower heart risk, if it is high in saturated fat. A food must also contain enough of a beneficial ingredient to say it offers any benefit.

In 1997, food regulations changed a little to allow claims based on solid research and published statements from federal scientific bodies. Two claims have been introduced through this change so far. One permits describing high-potassium foods as reducing the risk of high blood pressure or stroke; the other allows whole-grain foods to state that they lower the risk of heart disease and cancer.

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Within the last couple years, a major change has occurred. A "qualified health claim" can be made if scientists generally agree that the evidence supporting a claim outweighs the evidence against it. The evidence can even include preliminary data. Based on the strength of the evidence, the FDA requires different wording. Claims with moderately good evidence need to note "the evidence is not conclusive." A claim based on less sound research needs to say "some evidence suggests �" and "the evidence is limited." Still less solid claims must say "very limited and preliminary research suggest�" Consumers now must read the fine print to determine how strong a health claim is.

Foods marketed as supplements have other health claims that consumers should read and question. The FDA allows supplements and foods sold as supplements to make a certain type of claim without scientific proof or government approval. These claims can link the use of a product to better body function, like making healthier cells, but not to lower risk of disease. In addition, consumers should be aware that health claims made in advertisements about the potential health benefits of foods are exempt from FDA rules.

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More than ever, food labels are the last place to learn about healthy eating. Consumers are better off trusting experts without a stake in selling anything, like the American Institute for Cancer Research (www.aicr.org) or the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov). These organizations offer reliable information about healthy eating and ways to lower your risk of health problems.

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If you read carefully, claims on food labels can help you meet your eating goals. But even foods without health claims can be healthful choices. In fact, you need to be conscious of all your food choices. All of them together, not just individual items, make the difference for your well-being.