by Marion Nestle

Search results: Immunity

Sep 24 2021

Weekend reading: Immunity, Covid-19, and Generally Good Health

A reader, Philly Nassau, sent me the ingredient list of several “immune-boosting” supplements, in quotes because I am a supplement skeptic in general, and of immune supplements in particular (I favor eating healthfully and staying active).

Immune supplements claim to be “Nootropics and Brain Supplement for Memory, Brain Support, Clarity, Focus, Mood Boost, Anti Anxiety & Stress Relief.”  Nootropics?  These are defined as drugs or supplements capable of enhancing memory, concentration, or other cognitive functions and of preventing cognitive decline.  How I wish.

But first, the science.

  • Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status.  “The data highlight how coupling dietary interventions to deep and longitudinal immune and microbiome profiling can provide individualized and population-wide insight. Fermented foods may be valuable in countering the decreased microbiome diversity and increased inflammation pervasive in industrialized society.”
  • The Stanford press release on this paper. A fermented-food diet increases microbiome diversity and lowers inflammation, Stanford study finds.  Stanford researchers discover that a 10-week diet high in fermented foods boosts microbiome diversity and improves immune responses.
  • The New York Times account: How Fermented Foods May Alter Your Microbiome and Improve Your Health.  Foods like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha increased the diversity of gut microbes and led to lower levels of inflammation.

Beyond eating healthfully and including fermented foods in the diet, here’s what’s being said about diet and immunity.

Jun 8 2010

FTC goes after Kellogg’s Immunity claim, but why?

The FTC has imposed new advertising restrictions on Kellogg because of the Immunity claim on Rice Krispies.  The company is not to make claims about “any health benefit of any food  unless the claims are backed by scientific evidence and not misleading.”

Under a previous order dealing with Frosted Mini-Wheats, Kellogg was not supposed to make claims about benefits to cognition on any of its cereals or snack foods unless the company could prove that the claims were backed by real science. This new decision extends that ruling to include any claim at all.

OK, but I’m confused about several aspects of this decision:

  • How come the FTC is doing this and not the FDA?  At some point years ago, regulatory responsibility was split between FDA and FTC.  Since then, the FDA regulates claims on food package labels, whereas the FTC regulates advertising claims.  I realize that food labels are a form of advertising, but it’s unusual and surprising for the FTC to get involved in FDA-regulated matters.
  • As FoodNavigator also wonders, why didn’t the FTC fine the company and, instead, write a harsh letter? [see update below]
  • Why is the FTC doing this?  Kellogg agreed months ago to withdraw its Immunity claim ( see my November 5 post about the withdrawal).  The Immunity boxes gradually disappeared from supermarket shelves and I haven’t seen one for a long time.

So what’s going on here?  Is the FTC getting serious about regulation (and about time, too)?  Or is FDA sitting back and letting the FTC do its enforcement work?

Could this be why the FDA hasn’t sent a warning letter to Mead-Johnson, the maker of the chocolate toddler formula with three health claims aimed at kids ages 1 to 3.  I posted about this product on April 26, but haven’t heard whether the FDA is doing anything about it.  Can the FTC be on this case but waiting for investigations to be completed before taking action?

Kellogg, it seems, is under fire on all fronts.  CSPI’s Margo Wootan sent me the recent decision by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau that Kellogg must stop advertising Pop-Tarts to kids:

CARU was concerned that the product packaging, which features berries and states “Made with Real Fruit” for several of Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts®  products that have fruit in their names, impliedly represents to children that the products contain substantial amounts of fruit.

In fact, according to CARU, Pop-Tarts contain less than 6% fruit and less than 2% of the fruit shown in the advertising. Kellogg claimed that its marketing was not aimed at kids, but lost that one.

It’s great that regulatory agencies like FTC and FDA (and voluntary agencies like CARU) are regulating but it’s hard to keep track of who is doing what.   Nothing to do but wait and see what happens next.  Stay tuned.

Update, June 8: CSPI’s Margo Wootan writes that FTC can’t impose fines because it does not have the authority to issue civil penalties.  Ted Mermin of Public Good Law concurs.  He says:

Companies fight hard to make FTC (and similar) orders as narrow as possible, in large part to avoid precisely the situation in which they are held responsible for violating an existing injunction/order.  Since (in the Commission’s view, at least) Kellogg hadn’t violated an existing order, the FTC did not have the authority to fine them without first going to the US Department of Justice to get DOJ to take the case (a matter of a 45 day delay, if DOJ takes it at all).  The burden of that delay (and of needing to get authority from DOJ in the first place) is precisely what is driving the congressional charge for enhanced FTC authority as part of the financial reform legislation.

If the House version of financial reform legislation had been in effect, the FTC would have had the authority to seek civil penalties (i.e., fines) and the outcome here might have been different.  As it was, the fact that Kellogg had stopped the practice…kept the Commission (at least the three commissioners in the “majority”) from focusing on any remedy other than injunctive relief–that is, a broadening of the existing order from the Mini-Wheats case, with the threat of that $16,000 per violation (and an expanded area of prohibited activity) running into the future.

Update, June 11: In an editorial titled “Snake oil for breakfast,” the New York Times explains why health claims matter so much.  If you can’t believe health claims, what part of the food label can you believe?:

Businesses have been making dubious claims about their products at least since the 17th century, when the British clergyman Anthony Daffy sold Daffy’s Elixir as a cure for scurvy as well as agues, gout, rheumatism, rickets, worms and other ailments. Hucksterism — no matter how implausible the claim — lives on…[for example] POM Wonderful claimed its pomegranate juice helps treat, prevent or cure hypertension, diabetes and cancer.  This might be par for the course for an era of swift-boating political ads and a torrent of television commercials plumping for myriad wonder drugs (sudden death may result). It leaves the consumer in a quandary: what part of the label can be believed?

Dec 1 2009

San Francisco attorney vs. Kellogg’s immunity claim

My latest column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the immunity health claim on boxes of Kellogg Cocoa Krispies (see previous posts).  I’ve been writing the column for the last year at irregular intervals of about once every three weeks.  Beginning in January 2010, it has its own slot and will appear on the first Sunday of the month.  Here’s this one:

Q: It’s great that San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera put a stop to the absurd “immunity” claim on Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies, but how do companies get away with this?

A: I confess; I’m a health-claims junkie. I snatched up the immunity-claiming box of Cocoa Krispies the minute I saw it in a supermarket last August. I consider it a treasure: “Now helps support your child’s IMMUNITY.”

How does Cocoa Krispies perform this miracle? The cereal contains 25 percent of the daily value of antioxidant vitamins A, B, C and E per serving instead of the old 10 percent. Vitamins, Kellogg points out, play an important role in immunity.

Of course they do. All nutrients are involved in immune function. But is it remotely possible that Cocoa Krispies might protect your child against colds or swine flu? I wish.

Antioxidants present an unparalleled marketing opportunity. Kellogg does not have to prove that its cereals are protective. Immunity claims fall into a Food and Drug Administration regulatory gray area. “Supports immunity” is a “structure-function” claim, so called because it promises to support a structure or function of the human body. However you might interpret such claims, they do not really promise to prevent, treat or cure disease.

Congress expressly authorized structure-function claims when it deregulated dietary supplements in 1994. But that law did not apply to foods. Food companies wanted to use these claims, too. At first the FDA balked. When faced with further legislation and court overturns, the FDA gave up. Now it merely says that structure-function claims on supplements must be truthful and not misleading. The FDA says nothing about structure-function claims on food products. It mostly looks away when they appear.

“Misleading” is inevitably in the eye of the beholder. Herrera turns out to be a skeptic.

“The Immunity claims,” he said, “may falsely suggest to parents that cereals like Cocoa Krispies are more healthy for their children than other breakfast foods … [and] mislead parents into believing that serving this sugary cereal will actually boost their child’s immunity.” Kellogg, he said, must produce the evidence or have the claim subject to “immediate termination or modification.”

Faced with this threat and with ridicule in the press, Kellogg wisely decided to phase out the immunity-labeled Cocoa Krispies packages. Consider them collectors’ items.

Much is at stake. Ready-to-eat cereals produce more than $8 billion a year in sales. Kellogg spent about $32 million in 2008 to promote Rice Krispies cereals, and $4 million of that amount went to advertise Cocoa Krispies alone.

Shoppers care about health. If cereals can be advertised with special health benefits, more boxes will fly off the shelves. Food companies consider health claims essential for marketing their products.

This explains why so many companies are adding omega-3 fats, probiotics and antioxidants to so many foods. These ingredients make foods “functional,” meaning that the foods contain something beyond their usual nutritional value. Although little evidence shows that functional foods make healthy people healthier, companies can use functional ingredients to make health claims, no matter how far-fetched. These days, functional foods are about the only processed foods with increasing sales.

Kellogg has plenty of company with functional ingredients and health claims. See, for example, the claims on Nestlé (no relation) Juicy Juice products targeted to toddlers. One product adds antioxidants to “help support immunity.” The other adds omega-3s to “aid brain development.”

Think about it: Will feeding your toddler a sugary juice product really make her smarter? Face it. You are not supposed to think about it. You are supposed to buy – and feel good about doing so.

Absent the FDA, Herrera stepped into the breach. He does not care whether the claims are on Kellogg cereals or Juicy Juice cartons. If companies make such claims, he insists that they produce the evidence for them.

This will not be easy to do. It is one thing to find evidence that specific nutrients are involved in immune function. It is quite another to show that people who eat sweetened cereals or juices containing such nutrients are healthier than those who do not.

That is why the European Food Standards Agency denied hundreds of company petitions for health claims. The agency cannot find much evidence for the health benefits of foods with added functional ingredients. Its decisions have put European food marketers into crisis. How are they supposed to sell products without health claims?

As I keep saying, health claims are about marketing, not health. If it were up to me, I would remove all health claims from food packages. Foods are not drugs. Health claims cannot help but mislead.

So let’s congratulate Herrera for filling a regulatory gap. His colleagues – and the press – are doing their job on this one. FDA: Get to work!

Nov 5 2009

Kellogg’s withdraws IMMUNITY claim!

Kellogg’s says it will phase out boxes of Cocoa and other Rice Krispies cereals with the IMMUNITY claim on them.

Withdrawn, November 4, 2009

Withdrawn, November 4, 2009

The Immunity claim falls into an FDA regulatory grey area.  It is a structure-function claim, meaning that the product is supposed to support a structure or function of the human body – not treat or cure a disease. If Cocoa Krispies were a dietary supplement, the claim would be completely legal because Congress authorized structure-function claims for supplements when it passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

Over the years, food makers complained that if supplements could use such claims, they could too.  At first, the FDA issued warning letters to food companies using structure-function claims.  It stopped after the courts ruled that food companies could make claims for the health benefits of their products on First Amendment grounds.

Now FDA says structure-function claims are OK to use as long as they are truthful and not misleading.  Misleading, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.  Evidently, the San Francisco city attorney thought this claim was misleading and demanded the evidence to back it up.  USA Today wrote about this on the front page (I’m quoted in it).

Wisely, Kellogg’s is going to find another design for its Rice Krispies packages.  Consider this particular box a collector’s item.

The lesson: In the absence of FDA action, food marketing is allowed to run rampant, and city and state attorneys are doing the FDA’s job.  Good for them.  And let’s hear cheers for the power of the press.

Oct 6 2021

What’s up with African Swine Fever?

What got my attention was this headline: The World’s Deadliest Pig Virus Creeps Closer to the U.S.

The Western Hemisphere registered its first outbreak of African swine fever virus in almost 40 years on July 28 at pig farms in the Dominican Republic. By September the devastating disease had been found in neighboring Haiti. Now the U.S., the world’s largest pork producer after China, is scrambling to keep the malady from washing ashore and shutting down its $7.7 billion pork export industry.

Unless you are a pig farmer, you probably don’t know much about this disease.  According to the USDA, 

African swine fever is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and feral swine of all ages. ASF is not a threat to human health and cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans. It is not a food safety issue…It has never been found in the United States – and we want to keep it that way.

Why?

ASF is a devastating, deadly disease that would have a significant impact on U.S. livestock producers, their communities and the economy if it were found here. There is no treatment or vaccine available for this disease. The only way to stop this disease is to depopulate all affected or exposed swine herds.

“Depopulate” is a euphemism for slaughtering the pigs.  Hence the concern about its likely entry into the U.S.

I get an almost daily newsletter, African Swine Fever Update with frequent updates on where the virus is doing its worst.

But now hopeful news: USDA’s ASF vaccine candidate successful in tests

USDA has been working on a vaccine and just announced its success.

Newly published USDA research, as highlighted in the journal Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, shows that ARS scientists have developed a vaccine candidate with the ability to be commercially produced while still maintaining its vaccine efficacy against Asian ASFV strains when tested in both European and Asian breeds of swine…The onset of immunity was revealed in approximately one-third of the swine by second week post-vaccination, with full protection in all swine achieved by the fourth week.

So, Covid vaccines for us, ASF vaccines for pigs. Let’s go for both!

Mar 25 2021

Food company marketing for the elderly

I’m always interested in how the food industry tries to sell products to specific groups.  Here’s one of FoodNavigator’s Special Editions (collections of articles) on products the food industry is designing and trying to sell for older adults.

Special Edition: Healthy ageing: Food for an older population

Europe is ageing. By 2050 the population of over 65s is expected to reach almost 150m in the region. Gains are expected for products that cater to this older demographic by boosting immunity, as well as bone, joint, muscle, cognitive, heart, skin, eye and digestive health. FoodNavigator looks at some of the innovation strategies food makers are developing to meet the needs of older people.

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Dec 24 2020

Using the pandemic as a business opportunity, European version

Food Safety News reports that the European Commission is getting increasingly upset about fraudulent claims that specific food and supplement products will boost immunity and help protect against Covid-19 or even cure it.

Alas, they will not.

The EC is worried about online advertisements.  Food Safety News reported more than 350 cases of such claims in June.  Now there are even more.

In the US, we mostly see this sort of thing—websites from the supplement industry telling you to take supplements.  Here  is what this one claims, with my comments in red.

Supplements can help you address nutrient insufficiencies or deficiencies in your diet—but can they help you fight COVID-19? Not as far as anyone knows.

While there hasn’t been specifically-targeted research to determine which—if any—nutrients should be FDA-approved to ward off the virus, [Indeed] supplements are an ideal way to keep your body and your immune system functioning at optimal levels. No, they are not.  Food works much better.

As a result, many physicians and other health and wellness experts recommend beginning a simple supplement routine to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.  Many others do not, and neither do I.…The supplements you take during the COVID-19 pandemic may not be specifically developed to ward off the coronavirus. Right.  So don’t expect them to work.

Still, research has shown that they all play an important role in boosting the immune system, preventing respiratory damage, strengthening the body against viral infections, reducing inflammation—or all of the above.  This is true, but largely in experimental studies likely to have been funded by the supplement industry.

Obviously, I am not a fan of supplements.  There just isn’t much evidence that they do anything useful for healthy people, and healthy people are the ones most likely to be taking them.

With respect to Covid-19, the best preventive strategy is avoidance (masks, distancing, etc).

The best immune-boosting strategy is to eat a healthy diet–largely (but not necessarily exclusively) plant-based, balanced in calories, and with minimal amounts of ultra-processed junk foods.

And let’s all hope the vaccination comes soon and works like a charm.

Happy holidays.

Dec 8 2020

The Cocoa industry’s big problems: farmer poverty and child labor

Everybody loves chocolate but there’s a lot about its production that’s not to love.  It is a classic example of an exploited commodity: cocoa is grown in developing countries, sold at low cost, and processed in industrialized countries which reap the profits.

Chocolate producers are under pressure (not enough, in my view) to pay farmers decently and to make sure their kids go to school, not work.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles about these issues lately.   You can see what the issues are just from their headlines:

These are long-standing issues.  They should have been addressed more effectively years ago.   Here is some background reading: