by Marion Nestle
May 24 2012

POM fights back with out-of-context ads

POM Wonderful has a full-page ad in today’s New York Times (how much do these things cost?) titled “FTC v. POM: You be the judge.”  The ad includes selected quotes from the judge’s decision (see yesterday’s post) and refers readers to its wonderfully named website, pomtruth.com, where you can see the quotes and the ads for yourself.

I couldn’t help doing some checking.

The POM ad quotes from Chief Administrative Law Judge’s decision:

Competent and reliable scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the consumption of pomegranate juice and pomegranate extract supports prostate health, including by prolonging PSA doubling time in men with rising PSA after primary treatment for prostate cancer (page 282).

I turned immediately to page 282.  The sentence before the one quoted would seem to support it:

The basic research, the Pantuck Study, and the Carducci Study, relied on by Respondents [POM Wonderful], support the conclusion that pomegranate juice has a beneficial effect on prostate health.

But what follows the quotation makes it clear that although the research claims to support the effect, it really doesn’t.  Here’s what immediately follows the quotation in the same paragraph:

However, the greater weight of the persuasive expert testimony shows that the evidence relied upon by Respondents is not adequate to substantiate claims that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer or that they are clinically proven to do do so.  Indeed, the authors of the Pantuck Study and the Carducci study each testified that their study did not conclude that POM juice treats, prevents, or reduces the risk of prostate cancer.  And, as Respondents’ expert conceded, no clinical studies, research and/or trials show definitely that the POM Products treat, prevent, or reduce the risk of prostate cancer.

I will just do one more of the quotes.  The ad says:

Competent and reliable scientific evidence shows that pomegranate juice provides a benefit to promoting erectile health and erectile function (page 198).

This is indeed on page 198 but is followed immediately by:

There is insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to show that pomegranate juice prevents or reduces the risk of erectile dysfunction or has been clinically proven to do so…There is insufficient competent and reliable scientific evidence to show that pomegranate juice treats erectile dysfunction in a clinical sense or has been clinically proven to do so.

Because these statements are attributed to the same expert witnesses, this must mean that while some studies show benefits, the experts do not believe that these studies (many of them sponsored by POM) are scientifically credible.

Pomegranate juice is a juice.  Fruit juices are healthy and especially delicious when fresh.  I happen to like the taste of pomegranate juice.

But does it have any special health benefits as compared to orange, grapefruit, grape, or any other fruit juice?

Would any fruit juice be likely to prevent heart disease or prostate problems on its own?

Despite POM’s out-of-context advertisement, the Administrative Law Judge did not think so, and neither do I.

Addition: I’m indebted to FoodNavigator.com for noticing some of the other ads.

The caption reads: “Natural Fruit Product with Health Promoting Characteristics–FTC Judge.”

Comments

  • Pat
  • May 24, 2012
  • 11:06 am

Marion, Based on my personal experience with POM Wonderful as a 55 year old male, it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to erections. I have to limit my intake to 4 ounces a day, otherwise I look like I’ve overdosed on Viagra. POM Wonderful works for men and is worth every penny.

  • CJ
  • May 24, 2012
  • 11:22 am

Pat, Thanks for sharing. I teach research and statistics. We have a saying “Correlation does not imply causation”. If you drink juice and you get a zinger, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was from drinking the juice. Could be that you just really like the thought of the juice.

  • Richard
  • May 24, 2012
  • 12:13 pm

Pat, Are you sure that’s not just the shape of the bottle
:-)

  • MichaelJ
  • May 24, 2012
  • 1:34 pm

This reminds me of the representations made to me about Mona Vie, which was simply a blend of fruit juices sold at an exorbitant price. It was, of course, only available through registered sellers.

This stuff could cure anything, I was told.

But, in the end, it was just fruit juice.

  • Parke
  • May 24, 2012
  • 1:44 pm

On behalf of POM Wonderful, I’ve taken the liberty of composing ad copy:

“Fruit juices are healthy and especially delicious when fresh…. Special health benefits … would … be likely to prevent heart disease or prostate problems on its own!!!”
– Marion Nestle, NYU

  • Christine
  • May 24, 2012
  • 2:50 pm

I don’t agree that the statements about prostate are necessarily contradictory. “supporting prostate health” is a blanket statement that does not imply that the juice is treating or preventing anything. It’s like saying taking vitamins helps maintain good health.
On the other hand, the erectile function claims are absurd. I’ve yet to see any natural health product demonstrate any such effect in a well designed study. And even if the study was well designed, do we know if the treatment has been spiked with sildenafil? /rant over

Thanks for posting this.

  • CJ
  • May 24, 2012
  • 3:46 pm

Christine, I was going for placebo effect but you make some really good points. There may be other factors involved.

Marion, thank you for keeping us informed with the latest news about the food industry and more so, what it is that we are feeding to ourselves and especially to our children.

  • Anthro
  • May 24, 2012
  • 4:13 pm

I’m so relieved that you responded to this–it was screaming at me from the computer screen first thing this morning. I was extremely skeptical of the ad and was thinking that the judge was simply a fool–I hope someone goes after them for their hatchet job on the actual decision.

Christine, the phrase (so often used by the supplement industry) “supports _______” is meaningless and obfuscatory. It simply allows them to make ambiguous claims and keep the FDA off their backs for the time being.

As for “Pat” (or whoever you are–a paid troll?) I think the others have already responded and I wouldn’t really have anything to add.

  • pjnoir
  • May 24, 2012
  • 9:28 pm

Fruit can be healthy, but almost all fruit juices are nothing but sugar drinks. OJ is one of the worst so called healthy foods being promoted in the world.

[...] Misleading? Food policy expert Marion Nestle examines Pom Wonderful's "out-of-context" response to being slapped with a fine for claiming prostate health benefits for pomegranate juice that [...]

  • Anthro
  • May 25, 2012
  • 10:26 pm

@pjnoir

I agree with you–juice isn’t much better than soda in general. I was going to post that, but sometimes feel that I’m the resident grump here, so passed. Glad to see it mentioned all the same.

I remember arguing in favor of water at school events, whereupon I was quickly outnumbered by the juice proponents who reacted as though I had suggested beating their kids. I was also outnumbered when I protested a soda machine at the middle school and when I protested the introduction of chocolate milk at an elementary school. I had four kids, so I took a lot of bashing. This was all in the 80’s and I’m glad to see that I was right all along, but certainly not happy about the childhood obesity that has resulted.

I remember talking with a senior-level person at the FTC about 2 years ago about this very topic and the issues behind labeling. It’s become such a complicated topic because you have one party focused on profits, and the other party focused on the best interests of someone who knows absolutely nothing about food or nutrition. I’m going to assume that other commenters here and those that have read Marion’s books aren’t part of that population and we educate ourselves on nutrition topics via research. The average consumer does not. They read labels and ads. This is why the FTC/FDA regulates labeling.

By no means is this an ideal situation but I have to imagine that there are conflicting interests that complicate the matter. In an ideal world we would have complete truth in advertising and labeling, and an educated consumer.

  • Kiwismommy
  • May 29, 2012
  • 1:59 pm

It’s funny though that all drug companies now do their own testing for their products yet we are just suppose to take their word for it until thousands are dead and we still see denials that correlation equals causation. To target POM is ridiculous, at least they aren’t killing people. Plus the revolving doors at our federal alphabet agencies with drug companies make it even more likely that they will continue with business as usual while they go after juice makers, raw milk and health food stores, and supplement providers while avoiding the gorilla in the room, heavy duty drugs and vaccines with inadequate safety testing by independent sources. Pharmaceuticals propping up ghost writers for medical journals and rewarding universities that increasingly find only what they are told to find. I think claims like this are the least of our worries.

[...] following the POM Wonderful vs. FTC saga since the FTC filed its complaint back in September, puts the quotes in context for us. For [...]

  • Sam Steale
  • May 31, 2012
  • 4:02 am

This is really interesting – i can’t believe pomegranate juice is good for prostate problems. I will definitely be stocking up on that now!

[...] that the juice could treat or prevent erectile dysfunction, prostate cancer and heart disease. (Marion Nestle has more on Pom). There’s an easy solution to this: outlaw all company-written health claims on [...]

@POM
Those aspects of the judge’s ruling are not mentioned in Pom Wonderful’s new ads, however. Rather, the ads use flattering phrases plucked from the ruling to recommend the health benefits of pomegranate juice and invited readers to “be the judge.”

“What you as a consumer of POM need to know is that the F.T.C. judge agreed that POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice and POMx do provide significant health benefits,” the ad says. “Here is what the judge said in his own words.”

[...] POM says it has spent $35 million on peer-reviewed research proving that the antioxidants in pomegranate products promote health. [...]

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