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Healthy Food Labeling: Buyer Beware

The Food and Drug Administration (search) announced last week a new program allowing food manufacturers to make health claims on food labels. The FDA says it wants to encourage “science-based labeling” and “competition for healthier dietary choices.”

Fittingly, nut sellers are the first to be allowed to make health claims under the FDA program.

“Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts as part of a diet low in saturated fat (search) and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease,” is the FDA-approved wording for nut packaging.

Perhaps some people may reduce their heart disease risk (search) by eating a handful of nuts per day (and who they might be we’ll never know), but I’d bet that graveyards are full of heart disease victims who consumed plenty of nuts -- and other supposed “heart-healthy” foods -- to little or no avail.

Though the FDA’s program is new, the labeling of foods as “healthy” isn’t. Such labeling always has been, and will likely continue to be, dubious and sordid.

The practice arose out of the 1970s notion that dietary fiber (search) reduces colon cancer risk. In 1984, cereal manufacturer Kellogg (search) boldly made that claim on its All Bran cereal. The FDA inexplicably took no action against Kellogg, though the claim defied a longstanding prohibition on health-related food labeling. 

Industry lobbying produced a 1990 federal law compelling the FDA to permit health-claims labeling, provided there was some scientific support -- whatever that means -- for the claims. Consumers have been bombarded ever since with claims that this or that food helps reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

The dietary fiber-colon cancer (search) link, though, turned out to be a myth. Studies in 1990s failed to find evidence that dietary fiber reduced colon cancer risk.

The American Heart Association (search) fueled more “healthy” food labeling (search) in 1995 with its Food Certification Program (search) featuring the “heart-check” mark that supposedly identifies “heart-healthy foods.”

Foods qualify for the heart-check mark if they are deemed low fat, low saturated fat, low cholesterol, low sodium, and have at least 10 percent of the daily value of one or more of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron or dietary fiber.

But foods that meet those requirements don’t automatically get the heart-check logo. Food companies must pay the AHA thousands of dollars per year per product for the privilege.

The AHA deceives consumers by implying certain brands are proven to help prevent heart disease. Adding insult to injury, consumers pay up for the more expensive brands that can afford to dance with the AHA.

Pricey Tropicana grapefruit juice is “heart healthy,” for example, but supermarket bargain brand grapefruit juice apparently isn’t.

In the coming months, the FDA plans to push the labeling of fish, nuts and vegetable oils as reducing heart disease risk, and fruit and vegetables as reducing cancer risk.

There certainly are many statistical studies that seem to indicate that people who consume fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables and unsaturated fats (search) have slightly lower rates of disease.

But not all studies make these connections. In fact, as I’ve written in other columns, there is much uncertainty about the impact of diet on health. The subject is complex and difficult to study.

One problem with dietary studies is that the people who tend to eat “healthy” also tend to have higher socio-economic status. It could be that studies reporting lower rates of disease among “healthy” eaters are really reporting the beneficial effect of higher socio-economic status.

Although researchers make efforts to consider the impact of socio-economic status, it is not a phenomenon they can make disappear by waving statistical wands.

Deep down, the medical research community knows diet is not a magic bullet for preventing disease.

When a writer for the New York Times Magazine (search) pointed out to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (search) that the journal’s report of fish consumption reducing heart disease risk was dubious, the editor responded: “People are told that eating fish once a week is not a bad thing. What harm could it do?"

The harm is deceiving consumers into a false sense of security. Consumers who eat “healthy” foods because of labeling might reasonably expect to be healthy. This is pure fantasy, however -- once again, check the graveyards.

There is a solution, though. Food companies should put their money where their mouths are.

If I buy a product that doesn’t do what the manufacturer claims, I can return it for a refund. If I eat “healthy” according to food labels and still get heart disease or cancer, I should get my money back, no?

If food manufacturers aren’t willing to guarantee their health claims, they shouldn’t make them in the first place.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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