by Marion Nestle
Mar 15 2008

Qualified health claims–eeks!

Applause for our representatives who have written the FDA to something better about qualified health claims (to read the actual claim, scroll down to the end of the text, just above the signature). These, in case you have forgotten, are claims that companies can put on food product labels as long as the claim is accompanied by a disclaimer. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but here’s the one for corn oil: “Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about 1 tablespoon (16 grams) of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim (my emphasis). To achieve this possible benefit, corn oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day.” Maybe the letter will induce the FDA to review this policy?

  • Fentry

    I’m going to disagree here: I think these ridiculous health claims (“there is little scientific evidence”) make people more skeptical about health claims in general. That’s probably a good thing. People shouldn’t accept advertisements at face value–

  • Yeah, I like the qualified health claims, too. The first time I saw one, I couldn’t believe it: “So, you’re saying it doesn’t work?”

    I can believe the FDA allows the claims, but I can’t believe the food manufacturers are dumb enough to use them. But as long as they are dumb enough to use them, I cry, “Hooray!”

  • eguert

    I agree these claims are ridiculous. But I disagree that food manufacturers are dumb to use them. While we could be hopeful that qualified health claims get across the “there is little scientific evidence” message, I think that’s being highly optimistic.
    If qualified health claims are going to have a negative effect on food sales, that assumes the typical shoppers actually READ the entire qualified health claim AND interpret it as “bunk.” Most folks don’t have such time, instead making decisions based on the front-of-label health message.

    Those who would read the claim are probably already making better decisions than the average shopper. Plus, it takes a good deal of savvy-ness to interpret the claim itself.

    I worry about the person who skims the claim. Look what happens when you gloss over the text – you could easily read “scientific evidence” “reduce the risk of heart disease” “FDA” “supporting this claim.” Sounds good! I also worry much more about those structure/function claims, because they sound even better.

  • Fentry

    I agree with eguert that many people will probably skip over these health claims to their detriment. However, I do think that eventually, public knowledge will spread as people read.

    I am reluctant to regulate food claims to such an extent that people are likely to believe everything they read because they also believe the government polices the food market well.

    At a certain point, I think we really need to empower people and expect them to be empowered; informed and empowered people, I believe, would be a better long-run bulwark against industry and its persistent advertising–