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Debate Grows Over Food Health Claims

Consumer and industry groups are clashing over how -- and if -- the government should regulate foods sold in the U.S. that tout an array of health claims.

Regulators are watching as companies market an ever wider list of energy drinks, teas, and even candy bars with added dietary supplement ingredients purported to improve health. Watchdog groups want authorities to crack down, accusing companies of making unfounded and sometimes bogus claims about the benefits of the products.

The FDA takes action against unsafe dietary supplements after they are on the market. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure their products are safe before they are marketed.

Health Claims on Food Products

Marketers of food sometimes use phrases like "provides immune support" or "stimulates metabolism" to suggest the idea of a health benefit.

"The marketplace is currently bloated with dubious 'functional foods,'" says Bruce Silverglade, lead attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), an FDA and industry watchdog group.

The organization petitioned the FDA in 2002 to tighten its rules and force companies to show that added ingredients are safe and to bar companies from making what Silverglade says are a rash of questionable health claims.

The group turned its gaze on products like DanActive Immunity, a yogurt touted by Dannon for its ability "to help strengthen your body's defenses." Scientific studies of the product have shown no ability to stave off illness, the CSPI says.

Industry Perspective

Meanwhile, industry groups say that restrictions on health claims in packaging are stifling innovation on foods that could carry useful health benefits beyond their nutritional value.

"The functional foods on the market represent such a small fraction of the potential," says Barbara Peterson, a member of the Institute of Food Technologists, a scientific group funded by the food industry.

There are a handful of cases where the FDA has cleared health claims made by food companies. The margarine known as Benecol was allowed to tout the cholesterol-lowering effects of a plant-derived ingredient after scientific studies backed up the claim.

Peterson urges the government to allow the industry to set up a scientific panel to review and approve claims of health benefits before functional foods are sold.

"If the scientific claims are valid, the public health benefits could be huge," Peterson said at a symposium on functional foods convened by the FDA.

But Silverglade warns that such panels would weaken the FDA's oversight of foods and supplements reaching U.S. consumers. He warns that foods are generally consumed in higher quantities than supplements and that the effect of consumption in food is largely unproven.

On Tuesday, the CSPI threatened a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and Nestle over a jointly marketed drink called Enviga. The Enviga web site says the product contains ingredients "proven to invigorate your metabolism, helping you burn more calories." The site points to a study conducted in Switzerland supporting the claim.

In a statement, the CSPI called the findings "inconsistent, short-term and industry-funded studies."

Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director of the FDA's office of nutritional products and labeling, tells WebMD that the agency believes it doesn't need any more legal authority from Congress to ensure the safety of functional foods.

"The framework is already there, so regulations really aren't necessary," she says.

SOURCES: Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director, Center for Science in the Public Interest. Barbara Peterson, PhD, Institute of Food Technologists. News release, CSPI. Barbara Schneeman, PhD, director, FDA office of nutritional products, labeling, and dietary supplements.

By Todd Zwillich
Reviewed by Louise Chang