A Philosopher's Blog

Health Claims and Food

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 4, 2011
Logo of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ...

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If you visit your local supermarket and look over the contents of the shelves, you are bound to run across products whose labels features claims about various health benefits. You will also probably see an asterisk or other such mark leading you to small text saying something to the effect that the claim has not been evaluated by the FDA. However, you will see less of this these days.

While the FDA has, in the past, been rather lax about regulating such health claims, it has stepped up its efforts, perhaps because companies started making more explicit claims about the health benefits of their products. For example, when Cheerios boxes stated featuring claims about lowering cholesterol (in effect claiming that Cheerios served as a medication for the treatment of cholesterol) the FDA eventually responded by telling them to stop doing that.

The FDA does allow companies to make claims about how food impacts the bodies normal structure and function (so, for example, Gatorade can talk about hydration and restoring electrolytes). What is restricted is unverified claims about treating diseases (such as claims that a product lowers cholesterol). There has been some misleading hyperbole about what the FDA does which has probably created some confusion. For example, the FDA recently ordered Diamond Foods to cease making claims about the health benefits of walnuts in regards to treating diseases. This has led some folks to take the view that the FDA regards walnuts as drugs and that the FDA is getting out of hand.

In actuality, the FDA is not claiming that walnuts are drugs. Rather, the point is that if a company claims that their product can treat diseases, then the company is claiming that their product is a drug. Products that are intended as medications have a higher bar than products that are intended as food (and rightfully so) and must be subject to proper testing and approval as drugs. As such, the FDA is not out to get walnuts. Rather, the concern is that products are being marketed as drugs without going through the legally required procedure for testing medications. As such, if a company wants to sell walnuts as food without claiming that they treat various conditions, the FDA has no problem with that. However, if a company wants to claim that walnuts (or whatever) can treat a disease or diseases, then that is another matter.

It might be argued that companies should be able to refer to studies that show certain foods have health benefits. Being reasonable, I have no objection to that-provided that the studies are legitimate. However, this is quite distinct from having evidence that a specific food functions as a medicine that treats or cures a condition. After all, it is one thing to have studies that show that certain foods (or substances in foods) seem to have a positive effect on a condition and establishing that they actually treat the condition in a way comparable to medicine.

It might also be argued that the current situation is needlessly black and white: something is a drug or a food, with no gray area for legitimate claims about health benefits. This is, I think, a reasonable point. After all, there does clearly seem to legitimate category for foods that do have positive health effects (beyond just keeping a person alive) that are not actual medicines. It seems worthwhile having such a category and properly regulating it to prevent consumers from being deceived.

Naturally, companies might argue that it would be too hard or too costly to actually establish their claims about the health benefits of foods. This is, obviously enough, a terrible argument. If it were accepted, it would provide companies with what would amount to a license to say whatever they wished to sell products with no need to establish their claims. For example, a company could just claim that Oreo Cookies decrease blood pressure and reduce the risk of getting herpes.  Obviously enough if a company wants to claim a health benefit for their products, they should be expected to back it up. After all, if a company claimed that their product lowered cholesterol yet could not prove this, then it would be rather reasonable to wonder where they got the idea that it had this effect.

As far as the claim that the FDA is pushing companies around and violating their right to free speech,  that is a point of concern. However, a quick examination of food and medicine in America shows what companies did (and would do) when there was no government regulation. In my own case, I am glad that the state is keeping an eye on what companies can do and claim. As far as free speech goes, I have no objection to companies speaking freely. However, I do expect that they make true claims. After all, free speech is not the freedom to deceive.

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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 4, 2011 at 11:36 am

    So I suppose the government gets to decide what claims are true? Why not a panel of scientists?

    Sadly, the the government’s record at judging what is good for us is not very encouraging. For example:

    It’s Time to End the War on Salt
    The zealous drive by politicians to limit our salt intake has little basis in science

    For decades, policy makers have tried and failed to get Americans to eat less salt. In April 2010 the Institute of Medicine urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of salt that food manufacturers put into products; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already convinced 16 companies to do so voluntarily. But if the U.S. does conquer salt, what will we gain? Bland french fries, for sure. But a healthy nation? Not necessarily.


    • WTP said, on August 4, 2011 at 11:45 am

      Why, obviously T.J., this is simply an indication that we need MORE government-funded studies, because God knows we can’t trust the “knowledge” that private industry has. After all (as the good professor would say), they have a financial incentive for their positions on the subject. There is, of course, no financial incentive for scientists or their buraucratic overlords to make work for themselves and thus require even more taxes, excuse me, “revenue enhancements”, from “society”.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 4, 2011 at 1:22 pm

        Government funding would be fine-provided that the study is properly conducted and not tainted by politics.

        Of course scientists and bureaucrats are subject to corrupting influences. However, the practice of science contains correcting mechanisms. They are not infallible, of course.

        • WTP said, on August 4, 2011 at 3:40 pm

          “However, the practice of science contains correcting mechanisms.”

          …Or as a creationist might say, “God put it there”.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      Interesting. I’ve been badgered into cutting my salt consumption based on the data that supposedly indicated the badness of salt. Given the amount of salt Americans consume and the rate at which we suffer from circulatory problems, it does seem worth conducting the sort of large scale study that was proposed.

      It does make sense that there is such a thing as too much salt. However, the key question is the level at which it becomes too much.

    • magus71 said, on August 7, 2011 at 2:00 am

      The Japanese have one of the highest salt intakes in the world–and one of the longest life spans. And, the food pyramid was upside down for decades. It’s only marginally better now.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm

        That could be despite their salt consumption.

        Salt does seem to be a risk factor for people who have salt sensitivity which does make it a point of legitimate concern. Some groups seems especially prone to being affected by salt consumption, so folks in those groups should cut back-if only as a sensible precaution.

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