We Regulate Banks. Why Not Food?

By Marion Nestle
nestle apr18 healthclaims.jpg

Photo by suchitra prints/Flickr CC


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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/we-regulate-banks-why-not-food/16273/