As far as I can tell, health claims are completely out of control and food companies can say practically anything they want to about the health benefits of their products or ingredients. Not so, says a lawyer who steers food companies “to the bucks, not the courts.” His ten rules suggest the need for honesty and integrity (what a concept!). My favorite: “Just because others do it, doesn’t mean it’s OK.” Now, if we could just get Congress to agree that health claims ought to have some real science behind them….
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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?
Readers of the New York Times have lots to say about last week’s methylmercury-in-sushi article. One point is that Blue Fin tuna, the largest and therefore the most contaminated kind, are hugely overfished and disappearing from the oceans. This is another reason not to eat this fish (vote with your fork) but also a reason to call for a moratorium on catching this fish (vote with your vote).
So yesterday’s New York Times report on methylmercury in sushi tuna–a shocker because the most expensive tuna has the most of this toxin (of course it does; it’s bigger and accumulates more)–is now experiencing the expected backlash. Sushi eaters don’t seem to care much, and the tuna industry is fighting back through its public relations agency, the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF). What is a tuna lover to do? If you aren’t pregnant, about to become pregnant, or a very young child (if you are, you should avoid big predatory fish like king mackeral, swordfish, tilefish, shark, and albacore tuna) the FDA and EPA say up to 6 ounces a week is OK. That leaves plenty of room for spending a fortune on sushi.
Here’s what Newsweek has to say about the CCF complaints. It’s great to see a news magazine blow the whistle on that group. Every word CCF says is paid for, and some tuna association pays it to say that methylmercury is not a problem.
The FDA must be hearing lots of complaints about food labels and health claims because it is asking for comments on the best way to calculate the percent daily value (DV), and on what nutrients get displayed. It is considering removing “Calories from Fat,” for example, and requiring the amount of monounsaturated fat to be listed. Want to comment on these ideas or suggest others? Go to this FDA site. As for health claims, the FDA plans to reevaluate the ones for soy and heart disease, fat and cancer, antioxidant vitamins and cancers, and selenium and cancers based on recent research. To comment, go to the Federal Register.
I’m always surprised when people criticize the shallowness of USA Today when its reporters consistently write in-depth investigative reports that other newspapers ignore. This week, the paper is doing a series of reports on environmental toxins–lead, methylmercury, and endocrine disruptors. The one on the relationship of coal burning power plants to methylmercury in fish is particularly relevant to food issues (and is the subject of a chapter in What to Eat).
While we are on the subject of health claims, can those be the reasons why Coca-Cola is off to China to look for medicinals that can be added to its drinks? The entire point of putting “healthy” ingredients into foods is to be able to make health claims for them. These “functional foods,” as I keep saying, are not really about health. They are about marketing.
Surprise! When the European Commission invited food companies to submit proposals for health claims, it was inundated with thousands of them. European supermarkets used to be quieter than ours because manufacturers of packaged foods were not allowed to make health claims for them. Because health claims are great marketing tools, the food industry chafed at this restriction. The result: a deluge. Since every food except sugar and soft drinks contains some useful nutrients, can’t every product claim to promote health? The European Commission brought this on itself and will now have to sort out the mess. Can’t say they weren’t warned.