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The Bad, the Bold and the Bogus: Food Industry Health Claims to Watch Out For

There are myriad ways packaged food companies mislead consumers through vague, false, meaningless health claims, and difficult to decipher nutritional panels.

Thisstoryfirst appeared in EcoSalon.

In March the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report titled Food Labeling Chaos.

The report outlined in detail the myriad ways packaged food companies mislead consumers through vague, false, meaningless health claims, and difficult to decipher nutritional panels. The FDA took notice, and since then has issued a number of warning letters to companies making the claims.

Also recently the first lady announced a new commitment to ending childhood obesity in a generation through a renewed focus on exercise and nutrition. One way she plans to do this is to make sure that consumers get reliable nutritional information from food packages. She’s working with industry to rally them to the cause of making the information on food labels more clear for consumers. After all, how can our population hope to be healthier if we are not given reliable health information that will allow us to make smarter choices?

At this point, the first lady is trying to bring the industry to the table voluntarily. It’s a good starting point, but it’s likely that any voluntary engagement will need to be bolstered by a hefty does of regulation. After all, when the food industry gets together to come up with its own packaging schemes we end up with atrocities like the Orwellian Smart Choices program. You know, the labeling scheme under which Froot Loops were considered a smart choice.

For its part, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is one of the government agencies in charge of regulating such claims, has signaled a greater willingness to regulate than under past administrations. As evidenced by the warning letters sent to industry. But it remains to be seen whether these letters will translate into actual regulation. Food politics expert Marion Nestle doesn’t think so. She thinks industry will turn the food labeling cause into a First Amendment fight that the FDA won’t want to engage in.

In the interim between now and the time that regulation comes, it’s good to know when you’re being duped, so here’s a run down of the types of labels to watch out for, and the different categories under which they are likely to occur.

Structure Function Claims: Structure function claims are statements about a food’s ability to cure or prevent disease and are one of the most commonly used misleading claims on food packages. The FDA regulates such claims on dietary supplements, but has not established rules for structure/function claims on food. This means companies are allowed to do pretty much whatever they want. Occasionally a company is slapped down by a warning letter, public outcry, or a lawsuit by someone outside of the government, but usually it’s up to the consumer to view such claims with a critical eye.

Rice Crispies Boost Immunity – Last summer, Kellogg rolled out new artwork on its Rice Crispies (and Cocoa Crispies) boxes. The new box carried a giant banner saying that it helps support your child’s immunity. The basis for this claim was higher amounts of added vitamins A, B, C, and E. It took a letter from the San Francisco city attorney asking for substantiation of the claim for the company to back away from it. With no help from the FDA.

Pom Wonderful Fights Prostate Cancer – This ubiquitous pomegranate juice product claimed that it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and help fight off prostate cancer. The FDA slapped the company with a warning letter.

Diamond Walnuts Shrink Tumors – This product made packaging claims that it can inhibit tumor growth, protect against stroke and help treat depression due to the presence of omega-3s. This claim earned Diamond a warning letter from the FDA.

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