by Marion Nestle
Sep 28 2010

FTC says no to POM Wonderful advertising claims

The newly alive Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says POM Wonderful must stop making unscientific claims for the health benefits of pomegranate juice.  POM juice, the FTC says, has not been shown to prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, or erectile dysfunction, as the company claims:

  • “SUPER HEALTH POWERS! … 100% PURE POMEGRANATE JUICE. … Backed by $25 million in medical research.  Proven to fight for cardiovascular, prostate and erectile health.”
  • “Prostate health…You have to be on pomegranate juice.  You have a 50 percent chance of getting [prostate cancer].  Listen to me.  It is the one thing that will keep your PSA normal.  You have to drink pomegranate juice.  There is nothing else we know of that will keep your PSA in check. … It’s also 40 percent as effective as Viagra.”
  • Clinical studies prove that POM Juice prevents, reduces the risk of, and treats, erectile dysfunction.

The complaint cites advertisements in the Washington Post and Fitness magazine, as well as this ad:

According to the New York Times account, the POM Wonderful folks are not taking this lightly.  They have spent a reported $34 million on research to “prove” that POM has antioxidant activity.

But I could have told them that before they spent a dime!  All fruits and vegetables have antioxidant activity.

I love using POM research as an example of how easy it is to design studies to give you the answer you want.  POM research demonstrates that pomegranate juice has antioxidant activity and acts as an antioxidant in the body.  Of course it does.

But so does every other fruit and vegetable and what this research does not do is compare the effects of pomegranate juice to those of orange juice, for example.     That’s the issue I talked about in my November 19, 2007 post titled “The (silly) battle of the antioxidants.”

Which fruit has the most antioxidants? The latest report says blueberries, followed by cranberries, apples, red grapes, and finally green grapes. What? Pomegranates don’t even make the top five? In this case, who knows? The investigators were testing a new assay method and those were the only fruits they examined.

And then there is the troubling matter of whether antioxidants make a demonstrable difference to health.  The European Food Standards Agency has been turning down health claims for antioxidants like mad.  As I discussed on April 16, 2009:

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

If only that pesky science weren’t so inconvenient, marketers could do as they please.  The New York Times reports that the POM folks are not taking this lightly.  They are suing the FTC—not because they are claiming they have science on their side, but because they think their health claims, believable or not, are protected by the First Amendment.

Did our founding fathers really introduce the First Amendment to protect the right of marketers to make unsubstantiated health claims?  Do our judges really believe this?  Is this a good case for taking on this question.  Lawyers: get to work!

  • Anthro

    And what about all the sugar one gets in all that concentrated juice? Our obsession with beverages is at least equal to our fantasy of a “miracle ingredient” present in the exotic fruit/berry/root/herb of the day. I see people buying this stuff by the case at Whole Foods–there is usually no produce in their carts (I purposely note these things), but perhaps they shop at the Farmer’s Market?

    Thanks for the usual dose of reality.

  • As always, thanks for the common sense information that you provide. The fact that a 16 ounce serving of POM is 300 calories is enough reason to stay away from it.

    My recommendation: make your own fruit/veggie smoothies. They’re naturally sweet and delicious.

    Ken Leebow

  • Subvert

    @Anthro – Haha! Yes, a cart load of frozen organic TV dinners and processed junk food, and a six pack of high sugar miracle-beverages to flush all the salt from their systems and save their lives!

    One thing that POM is great for is mixing drinks…goes well as an adjunct to Brandy, OJ, a dash of orange bitters, and a splash of amaretto. Drink to your health! 🙂

  • One wishes the same diligence was shown in srutinizing the claims of drug manufacturers. The majority of the prescription drugs on the market don’t work as well as claimed, either, but the industry has the FDA on its side.

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  • JE

    The Nutrition Journal recently published a database analyzing the antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods (pomegranates included):

    Notwithstanding the Cochrane review linked to by Ms. Nestle, scientists are finding value in antioxidants:

    1. Antioxidants Do Help Arteries Stay Healthy:

    2. Scientists Discover Influenza’s Achilles Heel – Antioxidants:

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  • Mary

    I love it when you demand scientific basis for claims! The way it should be.

    I wish you held your commenters to the same standards.

  • These reports are not telling the full story. Here’s an exerpt from a rebuttal by

    The FTC now says the founders of POM Wonderful are “criminals” and accuses them of “false and unsubstantiated claims” in the marketing of their pomegranate juice.

    What claims, exactly, did POM Wonderful make? That pomegranate juice may help with heart disease, prostate cancer and other health problems — statements that are scientifically true and valid. But the truth has no place at the FTC, where politics determines their choice of the next victim in the nutritional products industry.
    Why doesn’t the FTC go after makers of infant formula who make their products with over 50 percent sugar? Why doesn’t the FTC go after makers of “Slim-Fast” who position their sugared-up product as a weight loss food and market it to gullible consumers? Or how about Coca-Cola’s deceptive marketing of Vitaminwater? Or all the other deceptively marketed chemical products, including pharmaceuticals and toxic personal care products?

    No, the FTC seems to reserve its wrath for natural products. Anything natural gets targeted while anything made with synthetic chemicals that make evil corporations rich gets utterly ignored, it seems. The FTC has made a habit of criminalizing the very people who are trying to improve the nutritional quality of our food supply while letting the real food criminals run rampant.

    In America, you can buy toxic infant food made with artificial food coloring chemicals, partially-hydrogenated oils and refined sugars. That’s completely okay with the FTC (and the FDA). But if you try to offer green tea, walnuts, cherries, pomegranates or any other natural food by informing consumers of the nutritional science behind your products, you are immediately branded a criminal and threatened with prison times, fines and the confiscation of all your products.

  • JE

    The health benefits of one dietary supplement group have received much attention from researchers around the world, namely Omega-3 fatty acids. Health Canada has just announced which health claims WILL be allowed for NKO krill oil:

    The Big Pharma-funded FDA is loathe to concede that any medical condition could benefit from a dietary supplement. I wonder how long it will take for agency bureaucrats to catch up with the science and allow a similar claim in the U.S.?

  • This is all hilarious to me. I used to work in advertising, on the Ocean Spray account. To get competitive with POM, they added a teensy amount of pomegranate juice to their cranberry juice and we launched a whole campaign about pomegranates as a super food.

    Marketing, marketing, marketing. I’m so glad to be out of that field.

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  • Jon

    POM has also recently been showing these ads with innocent fanservice girls from mythology like Eve and Aphrodite. Sticking with the cancer claim, does a single food prevent cancer? Probably not. Does pomegranate juice? Well, it is a fruit, but it also has a high glycemic index, being a juice and all.

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