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Consumers confused by food health claims

/ Source: The Associated Press

You’re not alone if you are confused by some of those health claims made on food labels.

Does eating two tablespoons of olive oil a day or 1.5 ounces of nuts reduce the risk of heart disease? Does drinking green tea reduce the risk of prostate cancer? Is there scientific evidence to support the claims?

At issue is a class of labels, approved two years ago, that allows manufacturers to make “qualified health claims,” provided they carry a big caveat — that the claims are not widely accepted among scientists.

A Food and Drug Administration study found that the labels do not accurately convey how much — or how little — science supports the claim.

In the study, which surveyed 1,920 adults at malls in five cities, some of the claims used text descriptions. Others were accompanied by a letter grade.

None performed very satisfactorily, the researchers said.

Critics say the study shows permitting the labels was a mistake.

“Consumers are bewildered and misled by health claims based on preliminary scientific evidence,” said Bruce Silverglade of the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. His group has fought the FDA’s loosening of the regulations to allow the qualified claims.

Food industry advocates said they just need to be improved.

“It’s a matter of finding the right wording,” said Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. But the claims should not go away, she said Wednesday, because they allow food manufacturers “to get emerging science out there into the public domain.”

All health claims on food labels must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Before 2003, those claims had to be backed up by substantial agreement among scientists, such as a statement that “calcium prevents bone-weakening osteoporosis.”

Since 2003, manufacturers could apply to make a claim backed up by less science, as long as the product carried a disclaimer. Manufacturers have received permission to make such 12 such claims on products, according to the FDA.

These include:

  • "Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil.”
  • "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 and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”
  • “One weak and limited study does not show that drinking green tea reduces the risk of prostate cancer, but another weak and limited study suggests that drinking green tea may reduce this risk. Based on these studies, FDA concludes that it is highly unlikely that green tea reduces the risk of prostate cancer.”

The change in the regulation came with the support of the food industry, which was seeking equal footing with the claims made by makers of dietary supplements.

Public hearing planned

To study the effect of these qualified claims, FDA researchers asked people to look at a hypothetical product and an accompanying health claim.

These claims were similar to those proposed for, or carried by, real products: A fake tuna product came with a claim that the omega-3 fatty acids may help fight heart disease; spaghetti sauce came with a claim that lycopene could help fight cancer.

The consumers then described how they perceived the strength of science behind each claim.

Most of the time, those surveyed did not accurately interpret the level of science behind each claim, the researchers found.

Letter grades did not help much. Consumers sometimes considered a “B” grade a stronger endorsement than a descriptive claim that was the equivalent of an “A” grade, the researchers said.

A survey by the industry-backed International Food Information Council that was released this year had similar findings, said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, director of health and nutrition for the organization. It also found that consumers regarded a “D” grade as passing judgment on the healthfulness of the product as a whole, not just on the science behind a specific health claim.

To Kapsak, the surveys suggest the FDA and manufacturers need to work out a better way to inform people.

“We can do more with the claim language to motivate consumers to better health,” she said.

The FDA is planning a public hearing on the matter next month.