Kristen McNutt, an attorney and nutritionist and former president of the Society for Nutrition Education, believes that an outright ban on health claims on food product packages would mean missed opportunities to communicate with the public about diet and health.
However, she says that consumers must be given the "ground rules" for understanding such claims and must realize that the truth may not be the whole truth.
At a recent meeting of nutrition educators, McNutt suggested nutritionists must make the public aware of the following critical messages in order that they may evaluate health claims, both in ads and in labeling:
1. Act Reasonably: The law and regulations related to advertising claims are based on a "reasonable person" standard. The government does not offer any protection for persons who fail to use common sense, who are gullible, or who "take the bait" by believing that an ad says more or less than the words actually say.
2. Read Thoroughly: Decisions as to whether an ad is allowed assume that the consumer comprehends the message based on everything in the ad, including the fine print.
3. Don't Read Into an Ad More Than Is There: Decisions as to whether an ad is allowed take into consideration all the qualifiers in the advertisement. Be sensitive to language that limits the meaning of statements and be careful about extending the meaning of a statement beyond what is actually said.
4. Ask If There Might Be More or Another Side to the Story: Advertisers are generally not required to communicate conflicting opinions, the existence of controversy among scientists, or additional information that might be helpful when a consumer makes a decision about the product advertised.
5. Put Diet-Health Information Into the Context of Your Total Life Style: Many of the benefits of good nutrition are accomplished in the context of other prudent health behaviors. Making dietary changes does not mean that you have taken care of a problem that is affected by a variety of factors.