The FDA Cracks Down on Food Health Claims

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If you’re like one of my college roommates, who would probably eat tar if it was labeled “low-carb,” you might want to think again before you grab a product based on what it says on the box.

Today, as the Washington Post reported, the Food and Drug Administration sent letters to 17 food producers because the companies were touting health benefits on their products that were misleading, contrary to FDA guidelines, or simply not true.

The FDA gave companies 15 days to come up with a plan to correct the labels or face possible consequences, such as suspension of their product.

Some products on the list include:

  • Diamond Food, Inc.’s Diamond of California Shelled Walnuts, whose label claims the Omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts can fight mental illnesses, lower cholesterol and protect against some heart diseases and cancers; and Pom Inc.'s POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate Juice, which claims to lower hypertension and reduce or prevent certain kinds of cancers and diseases. The FDA says such health claims are reserved for drugs.
  • Nestle's Juicy Juice Brain Development Fruit Juice Beverage (Apple), which claims it "helps support brain development in children under two years old”—another statement the FDA says only drug companies can make.
  • Nestle’s Juicy Juice All-Natural 100% Juice Orange Tangerine, and Juicy Juice All-Natural 100% Juice Grape, whose labels imply the products are 100% real juice, the FDA says, when neither pure orange tangerine nor pure grape juice are the products’ main ingredients.
  • Ken’s Foods Inc. for their “Healthy Options” salad dressings, which the FDA says must be “low fat” (3 grams of fat for 50 grams of food) in order to have a “healthy” label. The Healthy Options Parmesan & Peppercorn dressing, which has 6 g of fat per 30 grams of food; the Sweet Vidalia Onion Vinaigrette, which has 4 grams of fat per 30 grams of food; and the Raspberry Walnut Dressing, which contains 3 grams of fat per 30 g of food, all violate this rule.
  • Gorton’s Fish Fillets and Mrs. Smith’s Coconut Custard pie are both labeled as “0 trans fat” but do not disclose that there are high amounts of regular and saturated fat, as the FDA requires.

Some companies have plans to change the labels, but POM Inc. plans to challenge the FDA, according to the Post.

The recent campaign is one of the largest by the FDA in at least a decade, according to the Center for Science in Public Interest (CSPI), though last May the FDA also targeted General Mills for its labeling of Cheerios, which were claimed to lower cholesterol and heart disease.

Just a few months before the FDA's campaign, CSPI released its own report on food labeling and sent it to the FDA. The report targeted health claims, which were the focus of the new FDA campaign, but CSPI has also asked the FDA to increase its requirements for food labeling (pdf). This would include adding the label "high" and highlighting in red ink certain ingredients—added sugars, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium—if they accounted for 20 percent or more of the recommended daily allowance. The CSPI also urged the FDA to require companies to disclose what percentage of a products' grains are whole grains and how much caffeine is in the product, as well as other changes that they claim would make food labels easier to read (and understand).

There are probably plenty more food makers out there who aren’t being completely honest about their products. Until the FDA can get all of them to clean up their labeling, I think I’ll follow advice my great-grandmother once gave me (about food and life) when grocery shopping: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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