Food Health Claims: What's Real, What's Not?

Food package labels make all kinds of claims about how certain foods can improve heart health or promote healthy cells. Some of those claims are supported by scientific evidence, while others are not.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The FDA has done a study regarding the food packages in grocery stores. The study examines claims about health, and the FDA found that consumers are confused by what they're reading. NPR's Allison Aubrey is going to help us sort it all out.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Ten years ago the Quaker Oats Company asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve a health message for their cereal label, letting consumers know that a diet rich in oatmeal and low in fat may reduce the risk of heart disease. After reviewing all the scientific studies on oatmeal, the agency gave the green light, and the new health claim pasted on those old-fashioned rounded oatmeal canisters reversed a major slump in sales.

Professor NANCY CHILDS (St. Joseph University): Frankly, I don't know if oatmeal would still be around.

AUBREY: Nancy Childs is a food marketing professor at St. Joseph University and a food industry consultant. She says the oat bran label led to a sort of A list of approved health claims. These are the ones backed by strong scientific consensus; for instance, the messages you see on the orange juice cartons.

Ms. BONNIE LIEBMAN (Center for Science in the Public Interest): Here's Tropicana Healthy Heart orange juice.

AUBREY: Bonnie Liebman is a nutritionist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She points to a bunch of approved health claims on orange juice cartons. One notes the connection between calcium and the reduced risk of osteoporosis.

Ms. LIEBMAN: And here's another one: `Diets containing foods that are good sources of potassium and low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.' That's also an approved health claim.

AUBREY: So far, so good. The approved messages make a clear statement about preventing a disease. But Liebman says the confusion began escalating in 2002. That's when the FDA added a whole new category of approved claims. These are called qualified claims, statements that are backed by some evidence but lack scientific consensus.

Ms. LIEBMAN: This is a label for Planter's Heart-Healthy Mix of nuts.

AUBREY: On the back of the package is mouthful of a claim, saying that `the evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces of nuts a day, without increasing your overall caloric intake,' along with a bunch of other qualifiers, `may result in a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.'

Ms. LIEBMAN: The evidence wasn't strong enough for the FDA to approve a claim based on significant scientific agreement, so it allowed this qualified claim.

AUBREY: But if you look at food labels in the grocery store, you'll notice that the A list claims and the qualified claims are increasingly found in small print on the back of packages. They're not a big hit with shoppers. Marketing expert Nancy Childs says manufacturers have learned that consumers don't want to see the name of a disease on a package, even if it's claiming that the product helps prevent it.

Prof. CHILDS: Consumers prefer a positive message over a disease message, or what you might call a negative message.

AUBREY: This marketing reality has led to a big increase in yet another kind of claim, one the FDA doesn't have to approve. These are positive, yet vague statements about health that experts call structure function claims. The common phrases are, `helps maintain a healthy heart' or `helps promote healthy cells.'

Ms. LIEBMAN: It's a free-for-all. Companies can make these structure function claims that sound as good as the approved claims, and the average person doesn't know the difference.

AUBREY: Take, for instance, margarines and spreads.

Ms. LIEBMAN: This is a tub of Promise Light margarine.

AUBREY: The label is filled with positive structure function claims.

Ms. LIEBMAN: The big print says `helps maintain a healthy heart.'

AUBREY: And below, a claim that says the spread is a good source of vitamin E, which the label says helps maintain healthy cells and tissues. Liebman says none of this stands up to scientific evidence. In fact, the most recent studies show vitamin E is of no benefit at all.

Ms. LIEBMAN: The implication is that this will keep your heart healthy, but the evidence isn't there.

AUBREY: The FDA is in the process of reviewing its system of regulating health claims. In the meantime, Bonnie Liebman says shoppers should watch out for the phrases `helps maintain' or `helps promote.'

Ms. LIEBMAN: Claims that a food may maintain or support health are based on very little evidence, in most cases.

AUBREY: To make it simple, Liebman says, only allow the claims that are backed by strong evidence. Then perhaps consumers wouldn't be so confused.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And that's our health news for this morning.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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