You've seen it all: Health claims made on food packaging that include everything from how to lower cholesterol to how to ward off heart disease. But how accurate are these claims?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food labeling rules, manufacturers can claim that a food is "healthy" if it contains a limited amount of sodium and cholesterol, is low in fats, especially saturated fats, and has at least ten percent of the Recommended Daily Allowance of either vitamins A or C, iron, protein, calcium, and fiber

In May 2009, the FDA took General Mills, maker of the popular breakfast cereal Cheerios®, to task for language on the Cheerios® box indicating that it, "Can Help Lower Cholesterol" and "Fight Heart Disease." Other claims included that  "You Can Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 Weeks." In a warning letter to General Mills, the FDA said that the language used on the Cheerios® box suggests that the cereal is designed to prevent or treat heart disease by lowering cholesterol and that only FDA-approved drugs are allowed to make such claims.

While the FDA does allow companies that market whole grain foods like Cheerios® to advertise their heart-healthy benefits, they're supposed to include language that fruits and vegetables are also part of a fiber-rich diet. General Mills did not do this.  "Therefore, your claim does not convey that all these factors together reduce the risk of heart disease and does not enable the public to understand the significance of the claim in the context of total daily diet," wrote the FDA. General Mills is working with the FDA to address the agency's complaints.

Making Sense of Food Labels

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, has developed a tip sheet to help consumers accurately assess food health labels. Here's how to sort fact from fiction and choose foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol:

  • Calorie-free: fewer than five calories per serving
  • Fat-free: less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
  • Low-fat: three grams or less per serving
  • Low-cholesterol: 20 milligrams or less and two grams or less saturated fat per serving
  • Low-sodium: 140 milligrams or less per serving
  • Low-calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
  • Lean and Extra Lean labels used to describe the saturated fat and fat content of meat, poultry, seafood and game meats. "Lean" refers to less than ten grams of fat and 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving. "Extra-Lean" refers to less than five grams of fat, less than two grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving.