We Regulate Banks. Why Not Food?

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The European Food Standards Agency (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.

Imagine. Europe demands scientific substantiation of health claims. I wish we could do that.

Our Congress, however, forces the 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 it 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.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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