Food Structure/Function Claims

What is it?

Follow along with me:

Which of the following claims can appear on a food or supplement label without approval from the Food and Drug Administration?

a. Improves memory

b. Relieves stress

c. Suppresses appetite

d. Helps reduce difficulty in falling asleep

e. Supports the immune system

The answers: A, B, C and E. These are called structure/function claims. They describe how a food or supplement affects the body’s structure (i.e., the skeleton) or its function (i.e., digestion). Manufacturers can place one on virtually any food or supplement with or without evidence to back it up. Until recently, structure/function claims showed up only on supplements. However, in 1994, under strong industry pressure, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. The law gives supplement-makers free rein to make structure/function claims, as long as the companies following these guidelines:

In January, 2000, the FDA tried to answer the question, “Which claims need FDA approval and which do not?” Here are the results:

Claims Requiring FDA Approval:

1. Lowers cholesterol

2. Maintains healthy lung function in smokers

3. Provides relief of chronic constipation

4. Suppresses appetite to treat obesity

5. Supports the body’s anti-viral capabilities

6. Relief of persistent heartburn or acid indigestion

7. Helps reduce difficulty in falling asleep

8. Helps restore sexual vigor, potency and performance

Claims That Do Not Require Approval:

1. Helps maintain normal cholesterol levels

2. Maintains healthy lung function

3. Provides relief of occasional constipation

4. Suppresses appetite to aid weight loss

5. Supports the immune system

6. Relief of occasional heartburn or acid indigestion

7. For relief of occasional sleeplessness

8. Arouses sexual desire

9. Improves memory

10. Improves strength

11. Promote digestion

12. Boosts stamina

13. For common symptoms of PMS

14. For hot flashes

15. Helps you relax

16. Helps enhance muscle tone or size

17. Relieves stress

18. Helps promote urinary tract health

19. Maintains intestinal flora

20. For hair loss associated with aging

21. Prevents wrinkles

22. For relief of muscle pain after exercise

23. To treat or prevent nocturnal leg muscle cramps

As you can see, there is a very fine line between the approved claims and non-approved claims. The distinction between a structure/function claim and a disease claim can be subtle. For example, “Relief of persistent heartburn or acid indigestion” is a disease claim that falls under FDA approval. In contrast, “Relief of occasional heartburn or acid indigestion” is a structure/function claim requiring no FDA approval. You see how fine that line is?

For supplements, the FDA sees to it that there is no claim made regarding a disease. For example, there are claims that can only pertain to drugs that treat diseases. According to the current laws, a disease claim promises to “diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent disease.” If a supplement makes a disease claim, the supplement legally becomes a drug – drugs must be pre-approved for safety and effectiveness. The result: An illegal supplement. The situation we now find ourselves in is that food companies need not bother with health claims when they can say just about anything they want by using structure/function claims. The result? The supplement industry makes a fortune using structure/function claims. You, the consumer, are getting ripped off. Another result pertains to the food industry – they now have a free ride with structure/function claims as well. Food companies do not have to notify the FDA or print a disclaimer, like supplement companies do. Consequently, structure/function claims are starting to show up all over the marketplace. So far, many are showing up on decent foods, like fruit juice and fruit but it is only a matter of time before they start to pop up in the junk food sections and soft-drink aisles.

How to Tell One Claim From Another

1. Solid Health Claims. These reliable claims – based on solid evidence – name a disease like cancer, stroke, or heart disease; usually refer to a “diet” that is low (or high) in some nutrient; and cannot appear on unhealthy or empty-calorie foods.

2. Preliminary Health Claims. These unreliable claims are based on incomplete evidence. They have a disclaimer that ranges from the cautious (“the FDA has determined that this evidence is limited and not conclusive”) to the silly (“the FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim”).

3. Structure/Function Claim. These unreliable claims require no approval – in practice, that may mean no evidence. Instead or diseases, look for words like “maintains,” “supports”, and “enhances” and euphemisms (like “optimizes bone health”). They can appear on any food.

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