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Defining Nutrients Are Some Antioxidants Left on the Sidelines? (Originally published in AgroFOOD)

Claims on the content of antioxidants in products have been increasing as the public becomes more aware of their function. At their most basic, claims are added to food labels to bring to the consumer’s attention the benefit(s) of one or more of the components of the food product or, as is often the case with fats, the reduced level of said component. Claim types in the U.S. include health claims, structure/function claims and nutrient content claims.

Nutrient content claims typically provide a statement regarding the level of one or more of the nutrients contained in a serving of the food product (e.g., “Contains twice the RDA of vitamin C per serving”). Nutrient content claims are generally based on levels of nutrients that have been recommended by various nationally- and internationally-recognized scientific boards, such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) or the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF). The levels of nutrients that are recommended are “based on the principle that most, if not all, individuals of a population or a specific population group should obtain an adequate nutrient intake to satisfy their requirements”.[1]

But how is a substance defined as a nutrient? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that a substance has “nutritive value” when a substance has “a value in sustaining human existence by such processes as promoting growth, replacing loss of essential nutrients, or providing energy”.[2] Defining certain substances according to this standard has been relatively easy – the intake of Vitamin C prevents scurvy and the intake of iron ensures adequate hemoglobin levels in the blood. Substances such as Vitamin C and iron have been known and studied for many decades and their interactions with the body are well defined because they affect physiological processes that, when these types of components are removed from the diet, fairly immediate and deleterious effects on human health occur (e.g., the development of scurvy and anemia). There are, however, many other substances that humans consume on a daily basis that have yet to be adequately defined but are suspected of also being essential to the maintenance of life, although perhaps not in the same overt way as substances such as Vitamin C and i