October 27, 2009 in Features

Commentary: Food labels make misleading health claims

Julie Deardorff, Chicago Tribune
 
Tags:health

Sugary cereals with refined grains are labeled a “Smart Choice” or a way to “support your child’s immunity.”

Corn oil and chips boast they are good for your heart.

Ice cream snacks brag about having “0 grams trans fat” but a serving contains about 20 grams of saturated fat – a whole day’s worth.

And a “vitamin-enhanced drink mix” claims that its vitamins A, C, and E will help “maintain a healthy immune system,” though there is no scientific evidence backing this up.

Is it time to eliminate all health claims on food labels?

A growing number of health and nutrition experts, fed up with the misleading marketing ploys, says yes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, the agency that allows the ubiquitous packaging claims to begin with, has said it is going to clamp down on labeling that may mislead consumers into thinking products are more nutritious than they really are.

The move comes more than a year after the Centers for Science in the Public Interest urged the FDA to investigate deceptive claims. In the complaint, several prominent researchers with expertise in nutrition and immunity also called on the FDA to suspend its approval of immunity-related structure/function claims on food labels.

It wouldn’t be so hard to bring back boring old food labels.

The FDA banned health claims in 1906 “because many foods were being sold like patent medicines; Grape-Nuts, for example, was advertised as a cure for tuberculosis, malaria, and appendicitis,” according to the November issue of the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter.

“It wasn’t until the 1980s that food companies started making health claims again, and in 1990 the FDA produced new rules for them. The FDA now insists that claims be ‘science-based,’ though the food industry has successfully pushed for looser rules and frequently tests the limits of the rules,” according to the Wellness Letter.

Moreover, since 2002, the FDA has allowed “qualified health claims” at the request of industry, which means you might see something like this for corn oil, according to Michael Pollan’s best-selling book “In Defense of Food”:

“Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about one tablespoon (16 grams) of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil. … (The) FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.”

Claims such as this are why Pollan, nutritionist Marion Nestle and others say it’s best to avoid any food product with a health claim. Instead, Pollan says to look for the genuinely heart healthy whole foods, which are in the produce section but lack the financial and political clout of packaged goods.


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