You’ve read the labels: Folic acid can reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects. Olive oil and walnuts ward off coronary illness. Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids lower heart disease risk. But what do all these health claims stamped on food packages really mean for consumers?

A “qualified health claim,” which can apply both to food products and dietary supplements, must be supported by credible scientific evidence to gain approval by the Food and Drug Administration(FDA). To help decipher what the FDA recommends for optimal health, check out the chart below.

What the health claims are

FDA-Approved Health claim

Other clarifications

Folic acid

» “0.8 mg folic acid in a dietary supplement is more effective in reducing the risk of neural tube defects than a lower amount in foods in common form.”

» According to public health authorities, 0.4 mg of folic acid per day is just as effective—and the amount can come from a combination of fortified foods and supplements.

Nuts

» “Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

» The claim is restricted to almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachio nuts, and walnuts, even though other nuts may have health benefits.

Olive oil

» “Limited and not conclusive evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.”

» Use olive oil instead of butter or oils high in saturated fat. However, don’t increase your overall fat or caloric intake.

Omega-3 fatty acids

» Foods: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
» Supplements: “Consumption of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Although there is scientific evidence supporting this claim, the evidence is not conclusive.”

» The health claim for foods containing omega-3 fatty acids came later than that for omega-3 supplements. As a safety precaution, the FDA recommends that people take in no more than 3 grams per day of EPA and DHA, with no more than 2 grams per day from a dietary supplement containing the fatty acids. The FDA encourages manufacturers to limit the products that bear the qualified claim to those that have 1 gram or less of EPA and DHA. Supplements exceeding that amount must have a disclosure statement.

Selenium

» “Some scientific evidence suggests that consumption of selenium may reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer.”

» Supplements must have 20 percent or more of the Daily Value (14 mcg for selenium) to carry the health claim.

Soy-derived phosphatidylserine

» “Consumption of phosphatidylserine may reduce the risk of dementia in the elderly.”

» The FDA does not mandate a specific level for phosphatidylserine.

Vitamin B6, B12, and folic acid

» “As part of a well-balanced diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 may reduce the risk of vascular disease.”

» Go ahead and choose a multivitamin that has all three, but the FDA’s safe upper limit for folic acid is 1,000 mcg.

Vitamin E or vitamin C

» “Scientific evidence suggests that consumption of antioxidant vitamins may reduce the risk of certain forms of cancer.”

» The FDA recommends taking a dietary supplement with no more than 2,000 mg of vitamin C and 1,000 mg of vitamin E daily.

Walnuts

» “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces per day of walnuts, as part of a low-saturated-fat and low-cholesterol diet and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”

» Enjoy a handful, but be aware of overindulging given walnuts’ high fat and calorie content.