FDA Censors Diet-Health Debate

"Cran it," said the Food and Drug Administration to Ocean Spray about posting on the Internet information on health claims related to its grapefruit juice products.

But the FDA’s information superhighway roadblock may extend beyond the cranberry growers cooperative to other food processors. With much new diet and health information emerging, consumers stand to be the ultimate losers. 

Ocean Spray grapefruit juice products carry the American Heart Association’s "heart-check" logo, signaling to consumers that grapefruit juice is "heart healthy." But when Ocean Spray tried to elaborate on that and other health claims on its Web site, the FDA threatened legal action. 

The FDA’s tenuous rationale was that by mentioning Ocean Spray’s Web site on the label, the cooperative converted the site into a food label subject to regulation. Only health claims information specifically permitted by FDA regulation are allowed on labels. 

Ocean Spray removed the health claims discussion from its site leaving consumers to contemplate the meaning of the American Heart Association logo on its products — apparently the final word (or symbol) for consumers on grapefruit juice and heart disease as far as the FDA is concerned. 

A spokesman for the National Food Processors Association said the industry was concerned about the implications for other companies. Many food companies, after all, present health-related information on their sites. 

The larger question is should the FDA censor information about food health claims? A study in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association is more strong evidence that information flow to consumers should be encouraged, not squelched and compressed into food packaging hieroglyphics. 

The study examined data on 351,825 women for possible associations between fruit and vegetable consumption and breast cancer risk. The researchers concluded that "fruit and vegetable consumption... is not significantly associated with reduced breast cancer risk." 

Though only a statistical study that does not constitute scientific proof, the large, reasonably well-conducted study raises serious questions about the conventional wisdom that fruit and vegetable consumption reduces cancer risk. 

Other recent studies also raise questions about other "conventional wisdom" on diet and health. 

The American Heart Association’s "heart check" guidelines dogmatically claim that vitamins A and C reduce heart disease risk. But recent research from Harvard University and the University of Colorado fails to support that proposition. 

Over the last two years, four studies exposed as a myth the popular belief that a high fiber-diet reduces the risk of colon cancer. A recent article in the journal Science summarized the state of the knowledge about dietary salt and high blood pressure: "After decades of intensive research, the apparent benefits of avoiding salt have only diminished." 

Even commonly-held ideas about fat are under siege. In November 1997, Harvard University researchers noted in a New England Journal of Medicine study, "The results of [studies] between dietary fat and coronary disease have been inconsistent." Their own study of more than 80,000 women over 14 years reported no statistically significant associations between total fat, animal fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and risk of heart disease. 

But while the science on diet and health isn’t settled, federal law and regulations are. 

After the myth about dietary fiber reducing colon cancer risk was popularized, cereal manufacturer Kellogg boldly made the claim on its All Bran cereal in 1984 . The FDA took no action against Kellogg, though the claim defied a longstanding FDA rule prohibiting health-related messages on food products. 

Industry lobbying produced a 1990 federal law compelling the FDA to permit health-claims labeling, provided there was some scientific support for the claims. Consumers since have been flooded with claims that this or that food helps reduce the risk of health effects such as cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis. 

Although blame for perpetuating the unproven claims doesn’t lie exclusively with Congress and the FDA, the FDA should now act — or rather not act — to help place the claims in much needed perspective. The agency should avoid blocking the presentation of information related to permitted health claims. 

Consumers would likely benefit from responsible and balanced information about health claims posted on the Internet or otherwise made available by food growers and processors. 

Instead of being misled by the "heart-check" logo and enigmatic symbols, consumers should be able peruse food company Web sites that offer information on the latest research reports about diet and health. The FDA is wrong to assume that consumers need to be protected from this information. 

Certainly the FDA could take action if the information presented by a company was demonstrably wrong or intentionally misleading. In the case of Ocean Spray, the FDA had some valid objections to some of the Web site material. But instead of a measured response, the FDA overreacted. 

Congress and the FDA have amply demonstrated their inability to serve as the gatekeepers of scientific information about diet and health. Much of what has been legally promoted is turning out to be wrong. 

Food industry efforts may fare no better. But they certainly can’t be any worse. And with the possibility of consumer, legal and regulatory backlash for false or misleading information, at least the food industry has incentives to get it right. 

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junkscience.com.