by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Health-claims

Apr 16 2009

Europe demands scientific support for health claims. Why can’t we?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected a proposal from Merck to allow it to use a health claim stating that omega-3 supplements promote  eye and brain health in infants.  Merck wants moms to take omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and give such supplements to their infants.  EFSA reviewed nearly 90 studies on this topic and concluded that the study results were not “informative.”    In other words, they showed no benefit.  Imagine.  The EFSA demands scientific substantiation of health claims.  I wish we could do that.

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.

Our Congress, however, forces FDA to permit health claims, no matter how absurd.  Try the FDA-allowed “qualified” health claim for omega-3’s: “supportive but not conclusive evidence  shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” [my emphasis].  The FDA allows omega-3’s to be added to infant formulas, but here’s what it says about them:  “The scientific evidence is mixed…There are no currently available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.”

The EFSA interprets all this as unworthy of a health claim.

What can the FDA do?  If it says there isn’t enough evidence, it gets sued and loses.  The courts tend to rule that food companies can say whatever they like about health benefits on the grounds of free speech and the First Amendment.

In January, the FDA published “guidance” for industry about how it plans to evaluate the scientific basis of health claims.     Guidance is just that.  It is non-binding.

Hello new administration.  How about taking a fresh look at the health claims situation and paying close attention to what regulators in Europe are doing.  How about considering just saying no to health claims.

Jan 1 2009

Happy new year: Top food safety crises of 2008

Bill Marler, of the legal firm specializing in food safety cases, lists his top 10 picks for the food safety scandals of 2008, beginning with globalization and ending with pet food.

And Food Chemical News (December 31) says the FDA will be testing for melamine in farmed fish and fish feed from China.  When Hong Kong officials said they found melamine at 6.6 ppm in fish feed, the FDA wondered whether melamine could accumulate in fish tissues.  Apparently, that is exactly what it does.  The Los Angeles Times  (December 24) says FDA testing found whopping amounts of melamine – 200 ppm – in catfish, trout, tilapia and salmon that had eaten melamine-tainted fish feed.  This is way higher than the maximum “safe” level of 2.5 ppm in food.  So put fish from China on your list of what not to eat.

Let’s hope the new president picks someone for USDA undersecretary and FDA commissioner who takes food safety seriously.  That’s my wish (well, one of them) for the new year. Peace to all.

Dec 16 2008

FDA says it’s OK for women and children to eat more fish (oops)

The Washington Post says the FDA has breached the policy on fish consumption that it worked out with the EPA in 2004 and now proposes – in the last days of the Bush administration and without discussing the matter with EPA –  to increase the amount of fish considered safe for women and children.   Why?  Because, it says, the benefits of omega-3s in fish outweigh the risks of methylmercury contamination.  The EPA and environmental groups that work on fish safety are outraged, and with good cause, I’d say.  Check out the arguments.  You know this is about politics (translation: support of the fisheries industry) when the FDA says this is “science-based” policy (always a dead giveaway) and the Environmental Working Group says the FDA is nothing more than a “patsy for polluters.”

Nov 22 2008

Upgraded health claim for omega-3?

Yes Virginia, there is indeed a trade association for everything and omega-3 fats have their very own.  This one is hard at work trying to get the FDA to approve a full health claim (as opposed to the current qualified claim) for omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease risk.  The FDA now allows this statement: “Supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease” (my emphasis). I can understand why the omega-3 industry wants something stronger.  Health claims, as I keep insisting, are about marketing, not health.

Nov 20 2008

Organic farmed fish (and water) on the way, alas

Actually, they are more or less here already, but the USDA National Organic Standards Board has just given them a big OK.   According to yesterday’s Food Chemical News, the Board approved (13 to 1) a rule to allow “farmed carnivorous fish to eat meal and oil derived from sustainably wild-caught fish — a practice to be phased out over 12 years until non-organic fish feed is no longer needed” (huh?).  It also approved a more controversial recommendation (the vote was 10 to 4) to “allow use of open net pens in organic aquaculture, but with restrictions to prevent escapes of farmed fish and recycling of nutrients. Net pens would only be allowed in specified areas to avoid lice contamination.”

USDA-approved agencies have been certifying farmed fish as organic for several years now, so the Board was forced to take a stand on this question.  As I have mentioned in previous posts on this topic (and written about extensively in What to Eat), organic rules are supposed to be about the conditions of production.

Since when is ocean water organic?   And isn’t feeding “sustainably wild-caught fish” to farmed fish something of an oxymoron? The producers of farmed fish are desperate to be able to market them as organic.  So isn’t this move more about marketing than about producing fish sustainably and healthfully?

While we are on the subject of marketing, I’ve just gotten a press release from a company selling what it says is the first certified organic bottled water.  Since when is water not organic?  And what’s so special about this one?

The National Organic Program says it welcomes feedback and comments.  Here’s where to send them.

Sep 30 2008

Europeans turn down health claims

More cheery regulatory news.  To the consternation of food companies, the European Food Safety Authority has turned down 8 of 9 petitions for approval of health claims on food labels, largely because of lack of evidence.  For a while, at least,  Europeans won’t be confronted with food packages promising them that they will lose weight if they eat dairy foods.  FDA take notice!

Aug 22 2008

Europe hangs tough on health claims

According to Food Chemical News (I am hoping this link works), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has just rejected 7 or 8 health claims proposed by food companies for marketing purposes.  It looks like EFSA–what a concept–is trying to hold health claims to some reasonable level of scientific substantiation.  It turned down petitions from a company wanting to advertise a soy and flaxweed product as “induces bone formation and increases bone mineral density,” and the National Dairy Council of Ireland which proposed that three dairy servings a day promoted healthy weight during childhood and adolescence.  Although it agreed that Unilever could claim that plant sterols lowered blood cholesterol,” it took out the words “significantly” and “is proven.”  Food Chemical News says these decisions sent “shockwaves through the food industry.” I’ll bet.

Jun 2 2008

Wonderful Copenhagen!

I’m in Copenhagen this week at the Nordic Nutrition meetings and did my usual tourist thing. I went to supermarkets to check out the products and the health claims. What a disappointment. Denmark doesn’t allow health claims, or at least not many. In Denmark, food is just food. I couldn’t find a mention of vitamins (the Danes don’t permit vitamin or mineral fortification except for iodine in salt), omega-3’s, antioxidants, or cholesterol-lowering, and the breakfast cereal aisle was scanty and only a few packages had cartoons.  But this peaceful situation will not last much longer. The E.U. rules are coming and with them will come health claims and all the marketing hype and confusion that inevitably accompany them. Too bad.