6 supermarket foods and their health claims: Are they true?

Is your favourite drink, yogurt or bread full of power ingredients, or just marketing hype? Find out here

6 supermarket foods and their health claims: Are they true?

Source: Web exclusive, April 2010

Do you think of the supermarket as a kind of modern medicine cabinet, with which you not only keep yourself well-fuelled but also stave off common health complaints? Maybe even chronic disease? You’re not alone. In a 2006 government survey, 65 percent of Canadians said that they choose foods to enhance general well-being over and above taste and preference, and 42 percent said they choose foods for medical purposes.

But with so many options out there, it’s hard to distinguish true power foods from the imposters. Here’s a little help. We’ve rounded up products that some say promise more than they can deliver.

Glacéau VitaminWater

Soda manufacturers are no strangers to controversy, but it’s not our favourite colas that are the target of nutrition advocates this time. It’s Glacéau VitaminWater, Coca-Cola’s brand of bottled water blended with vitamins and minerals and promoted with tongue-in-cheek ads and Day-Glo packaging.

Controversial claims:
In 2009 in the U.S., Coca-Cola was hit with a class-action lawsuit led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The advocacy group charged that the company makes ‘dramatic claims’ about VitaminWater, in particular, that the drinks ‘variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function.’ CSPI isn’t the only one on the lookout. In 2009, the Advertising Standards Association in the U.K. banned several VitaminWater print ads after receiving complaints that the ads ‘misleadingly implied that vitamins in the drinks conferred health benefits that made them equivalent, or preferable to vegetables.’

Bottom line:
Skip VitaminWater and its empty calories if your goal is to find a superhealthy drink. A 591 mL bottle contains 120 calories mainly from cane sugar (that’s about 30 grams of sugar or 23 percent of the recommended daily value for carbohydrates). Instead, get your nutrients from whole foods and drink water.

Sarah Lee Soft & Smooth Plus bread

Controversial claims: This new bread contains the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, an essential nutrient that’s important for heart health and the development of our brains and eyes. How much of an omega-boost do you get? Six milligrams of DHA per slice, which, according to the company’s press release, ‘Is at least 10 percent of the U.S. Institute of Medicine’s suggested daily amount for kids, depending on age, ranging from 1’13 years old.’ Health Canada and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) developed their dietary guidelines together so the same recommendations apply in Canada. The problem? Doctor and nutrition sleuth Yoni Freedhoff points out on his Weighty Matters blog, that the IOM ‘doesn’t have a suggested daily amount of DHA for kids.’

Bottom line: Keep the promise of added DHA in perspective. Note that a three-ounce serving of salmon typically contains 1.2 grams of DHA (not to mention EPA, another omega-3), which is 100 times the amount of DHA in two slices of Sara Lee bread. Omega-3s are the darling of the food industry right now. There are numerous other products boasting added DHA on Canadian supermarket shelves, such as Dairyland’s Li’l Ones Yogurt with DHA. Its label lists 0 grams omega-3 polyunsaturates because the amount of DHA is too low to meet Canada’s labelling laws, according to Dr. Freedhoff. You’ll also find Wonder+ Headstart with Omega-3 DHA bread, and Tropicana Essentials Omega-3. However, be sure to weigh the benefit of added DHA against other ingredients you might be consuming, such as sugar and saturated fat.

POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice

Controversial claims: The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is unhappy with POM because the company makes therapeutic claims about POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice on its global website. In a letter released in March 2010, the agency warned POM about trumpeting the health benefits of antioxidants found in pomegranate juice for atherosclerosis, blood pressure, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction. To make such claims in the U.S., the juice would need to be approved as a drug and undergone a rigorous approval process.

Bottom line: POM has spent at least $30 million on research into the health benefits of pomegranates, according to a 2009 Washington Post article. A 2000 study, for example, found that drinking POM for two weeks lowered ‘bad’ cholesterol by 20 percent in 13 healthy men. The key to POM’s health benefits, says the company? Antioxidants, those scavenging molecules that help remove damaging free radicals from the body. Despite the benefits of eating antioxidant-rich foods, the science of antioxidant supplementation is less convincing. Key studies have found no evidence that the use of antioxidant vitamins (A, C, E, beta-carotene and selenium) reduces mortality in people who are healthy or have a history of chronic disease.

Activia and DanActive yogurt products

Controversial claims: A U.S. law firm led a class action lawsuit against Dannon (called Danone, in Canada) in 2008 over claims made on its probiotic yogurt products Activia and DanActive. The suit alleged that claims such as "proven" to improve one’s "intestinal rhythm" and "regulate your digestive system" were deceptive and unsubstantiated.

Bottom line: Dannon chose to settle the lawsuit (it agreed to pay out $35 million to U.S. consumers who purchased its products, which hit the market in 2006 and 2007) and modify its marketing. But the company stands by its claims, citing numerous scientific studies on the health benefits of its active bacterial culture, BL Regularis as proof of the products’ effectiveness.

Recent research from Danone’s laboratories in France and published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that healthy women who consumed two of the company’s 125 gram servings of yogurt per day for four weeks reported improved gastrointestinal well-being and fewer digestive symptoms than women who consumed a non-fermented dairy product. Beyond Danone’s specific claims, there is plenty of evidence that probiotics promote digestive health, but only certain probiotic strains are effective. So before you buy, check which strains are listed on the packaging and check whether they’ve been independently tested.

Oreo cookies and Lay’s chips

Controversial claims: These two foods sport a healthy food logo designed by their manufacturer to designate ‘better-for-you’ products. Kraft’s Sensible Solutions logo appears on Snak Packs of Mini Oreos, and PepsiCo’s Smart Spot logo decorates the front of Lay’s Lightly Salted chips. In the case of Lay’s, PepsiCo says the chips ‘are a smart selection because each 50 gram serving has 50% Less Sodium than Lay’s Classic Potato Chips.’ In October 2009, the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems, an initiative of the Public Health Association of Quebec, condemned these confusing front-of-package private labels and called on Health Canada to act against them.

Bottom Line:
Lightly Salted Lay’s still have 280 calories and 18 grams of fat per 50 gram serving. A pack of Mini Oreos has 6 grams of fat per 30 gram serving and 12 grams of sugar. So don’t be fooled by private logos. They may point you to healthier selections in a product line, but if it’s junk food then it’s still junk food.

Relaxation drinks: Can you sip your stress away?
What’s your nutrient IQ?
Are popular dietary supplements worth the money?

Don’t miss out! Sign up for our free weekly newsletters and get nutritious recipes, healthy weight-loss tips, easy ways to stay in shape and all the health news you need, delivered straight to your inbox.