Nutrition information: What do you trust?

Sometimes, having more information is better. Sometimes, having more information is just more confusing. When it comes to nutrition information, “I don’t know what to believe!” is a common complaint. “First they say ‘eat this,’ then they say, ‘nevermind…eat that instead.'”

As a future dietitian and nutritionist, I totally concede that nutrition information changes, and it can be confusing and frustrating. But at the core, it doesn’t change as much, or as often, as it appears.
First of all, some changes are completely legit. Nutrition is largely a science, and scientific knowledge changes constantly. Some areas of science change faster than others (the human genome, anyone?). Science is about asking questions and finding answers to the best of our current abilities. It’s the nature of science that when one question is answered, more questions pop up in their place.

Sometimes, technology and/or knowledge advance to the point where what we were pretty sure was true just isn’t. It would be wrong to cling to old answers in the face of a substantive body of evidence pointing to new answers. (A classic example of this is trans fats. We once thought hydrogenated unsaturated fats were healthier than saturated fats. Now we know nothing could be further from the truth.)

Notice that I said “a substantive body of evidence.” Too often, I see startling results of one single study promoted in the media. The publicity usually comes with some disclaimer about how “this is only one study and more research needs to be done.” Unfortunately, that disclaimer often gets buried or ignored. Research involving animals doesn’t necessarily translate to humans, and humans are variable enough that, generally speaking, one single study isn’t enough to warrant making recommendations to the general public.

So, we have:

  • Nutrition recommendations backed by substantive evidence. Trust.
  • Nutrition recommendations backed by minimal evidence. Hold off and see how thing shake out.

As I mentioned in my column on Sunday, we also have:

  • Health claims as permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Trust.
  • Structure-function claims, not regulated by the FDA. Treat carefully, and don’t mistake them for health claims.
What I didn’t have space to mention in my column is that there are three categories of health claims allowed by the FDA. There are the 12 authorized health claims, which I did spell out, but there are also allowances for four health claims based on authoritative statements by federal scientific bodies (same link as above, just scroll to the bottom of the page), and for qualified health claims, which essentially are claims allowed because there is some scientific support for the claim, but the research is still limited. You’ll notice that in each case, only very specific wording is allowed.

Why does this matter? Because while good nutrition is a powerful tool for helping us feel our best and be our healthiest, it’s not magic. That’s especially true when you isolate “food” to a specific nutrient or other component. It’s easy to read a health claim on a food label and think that if you eat that food you will be protected from cancer or heart disease, but it’s not that simple. Food and nutrition is an important part of the equation, but it’s only part of the equation. If you smoke and don’t exercise, for example, you are at elevated risk for heart disease, even if you eat a healthy diet.

Knowledge is power, and information can help us decide what choices to make, but for those choices to be truly informed choices, we need to be able to put that information into context, and not read more into it than we should.