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The FDA should put an end to bogus health claims on packaged foods, experts say

February 24, 2010 |  1:49 pm

There are lies, damned lies, and … health claims printed on the front of packaged foods.

So say two prominent food industry critics in a commentary published in Wednesday’s edition of the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

Immunity We here at Booster Shots are no great fans of front-of-package labels. But we’ve got nothing on Marion Nestle and Dr. David Ludwig.

Nestle, of course, is the New York University nutritionist who wrote “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.” Ludwig is a pediatric endocrinologist who is on a mission to end childhood obesity. Together, they are urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban companies from splashing dubious health claims on boxes of breakfast cereals, snack items, frozen dinners and anything else you might consider eating.

The federal government did just this way back in 1906: The Pure Food and Drug Act outlawed health claims that were “false or misleading in any particular.” After food makers got the prohibition overturned in court in 1911 in the case of U.S. vs. Johnson, Congress responded the following year with the Sherley Amendment, which once again gave the feds power to go after “false therapeutic claims intended to defraud the purchaser,” according to this historical roundup from the FDA.

Fast-forward to 1984, when Kellogg’s high-fiber All-Bran cereal won an endorsement from the National Cancer Institute. “Within 6 months, All-Bran’s market share increased by 47%, sending an unmistakable message that health claims sell products,” Nestle and Ludwig write.

So perhaps it was inevitable that in 2009, Kellogg would claim that its Cocoa Krispies and other Krispies cereals would “support your child’s IMMUNITY” because they are fortified with vitamins A, C and E, three antioxidants that contribute to the immune system. Here’s what Nestle had to say about that assertion in a Q&A last year with the San Francisco Chronicle:

"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."

After San Francisco City Atty. Dennis Herrera challenged the immunity claim, Kellogg backed down. But case-by-case enforcement isn’t sufficient, Nestle and Ludwig say. Food makers are brazen in their pronouncements that their highly processed products are healthy, and research shows that consumers not only believe the statements but also perceive them to carry a government seal of approval.

That leaves only one solution, the coauthors say: “an outright ban on all front-of-package claims.” Such a ban would surely face a court challenge on 1st Amendment grounds, Nestle and Ludwig concede, but the FDA should not shrink from the fight:

"Claims that sugar-sweetened products make children smarter or boost their immunity are reason enough for the FDA to take this issue back to court and for Congress to consider legislative remedies.”

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: Health claims on packaged foods -- like this one from Kellogg's -- have so little foundation in reality that the FDA ought to ban them, experts say. Credit: Courtesy of Marion Nestle

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Comments (5)

FDA means Food and drug advertising.

The 1st Amendment guarantees the right to lie? New one for me.

I agree, bogus claims should not be allowed on pagkaged or any other foods. Our big bellies are killing us.

What about food allergies and the misleading ingredients listed on the side panel of labels? For example, there are 40 different names for essentially the same product ingredient- MSG - that consumers unknowingly ingest in many food products. If a consumer is not savvy, nor able to study all iterations of the product ingredients that consumers unknowingly are being inconspicuously exposed to, isn't it the role of the FDA to protect the public? Or at the very least, ensure that the public can understand through clear and transparent information made available?
For some kids and adults with allergies, this misinformation could be a matter of life and death, in some instances. It is a shame and really threatens the public well-being.

As an undergraduate student interested in children's health and medicine, I am very interested in, and concerned with the current challenges that plague these fields. With one of these challenges being the exceedingly high rates of childhood obesity, I was very intrigued by the topic of this entry, and I find that you raise very important points on a difficult issue relating to children's health. It seems as though with the significant increase in product sales that results from health claims and endorsements, the abundance of front-of-package labels has shot through the roof, spanning more snack products than ever before. In a society filled with busier parents and minimal time to devote to attending to nutrition, these bold claims hold greater influence on purchased foods. It feels almost as though manufacturers are claiming that their products can serve as drugs for consumers, as they strengthen the immune system, lower cholesterol, and do everything else to enhance a child's overall health.

Because the level of truth of each health claim differs from product to product, a case-by-case evaluation by the FDA seems to be the fitting choice for allowing or denying a health declaration to be featured on a product. I agree with Nestle and Ludwig, however, in that a case-by-case method would be inefficient and ineffective in combating the chief issue of dubious health claims and their influence on snack food purchases. As these external labels bear such an impact, it may be a necessity to enact an outright ban on these food package labels, as was suggested in your entry. Do you believe that a ban may cause us to lose any potential benefits that these labels offer? Do these health claims demand that parents pay greater attention to the vitamins and nutrients that their children need, thus may a ban deprive parents from exposure to this information? As part of her recent Let’s Move campaign, Michelle Obama addresses the specific issue of nutrition labels being so complex that they are practically pointless for consumers. Perhaps if a ban on food labels was coupled with a large-scale simplification of nutrition labels, parents may be able to successfully navigate the ingredients and nutrients of a product for themselves, facilitating healthier nutrition choices for their children. I sincerely hope that in weighing the importance of product sales against the nation-wide health of our youth, federal regulators will clearly see that food-package labels are disadvantageous to children's health.


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