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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Scams


Beware of misleading nutrition claims

Holly Jay, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Cass County, University of Missouri Extension


Fresh apple on top of newspaper with Healthy Living headlineEat this, don’t eat that — as consumers, we are inundated with information about health and nutrition. There are many new recommendations to gain better health, get fit, lose weight and be healthier.


All this information can be a bit overwhelming. As consumers, we must be able to determine if the information is accurate and true, and not something that will harm our health now or in the future.


There are a few simple steps that we can take to help us determine if the information we receive is relevant, reliable and research-based. Based on the article titled “10 Red Flags of Misleading Nutrition Claims,” adapted for the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter from an earlier article by Julie Flaherty, editor of the Tufts Nutrition magazine, here are some warning signs to look out for.


  • A quick fix. Diane McKay, assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, leads a program that helps explain research so that we can better understand what the findings mean. McKay says: “Don’t be won over by official-sounding science terminology.”
  • Danger from a single food, product or regimen. Many times a food, or a substance in a food, is said to be bad for us. The reality is that the food may have other nutrients essential to maintaining good health that outweigh the negative effects. Refer to Is it a protein, whole grain, fruit, vegetable or dairy product?
  • Lists of good or bad foods. Many times we just want to know what to eat and what to avoid. This can result in avoiding foods that are not necessarily harmful if we eat them once in a while. Will having ice cream occasionally harm us?
  • A product claim that can fix us. These are claims which are too good to be true. Use some common sense when considering these claims. Look at the science behind the product. Is it a true research-based claim using reliable studies?
  • Scientific studies that draw simple conclusions. Adela Hruby, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health who teaches a course on interpreting nutrition evidence for the Tufts communications certificate program, says that “many studies simply can’t be boiled down to a headline.”  Is the conclusion accurate, or does more research need to be done?
  • Single-study results. Recommendations based on a single study may not be as reliable as recommendations made after several studies. Be sure the science is proven true through several studies before you draw conclusions. Sometimes these studies go against what we have believed for years. Take a step back, and look at the evidence.
  • Scientific studies not peer reviewed. Good scientific studies will include a process in which a group of peers “deemed the research well-conducted, the results credible and the findings significant,” Flaherty states.
  • Statements against reputable agencies. A health statement may go against what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or other reputable organizations recommend. Read and follow these trusted sources for reliable information. Another reliable source is University of Missouri Extension.
  • A claim that will help sell a product. Many times a nutrition claim is just a way to help sell the latest greatest supplement, health fix, weight loss pill, etc. Look at who funded a study for help in determining whether the study is telling the whole truth. For example, a study on the benefits of plums funded by California plum growers could be biased.
  • One size fits all approach. Watch for health claims drawn from a study that says it can help all people. This should be an immediate red flag. We are all different; what works for one person may not work for another.


So before you make a major change in your diet, consult your doctor, read up about the claims and consult reliable sources for information that is accurate and trustworthy. Your health is your responsibility. Become an informed consumer, and don’t let anyone take advantage of you or your family’s health.


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Last update: Monday, February 20, 2017