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The FDA's 'Maybe' Rule

Some types of nuts can now have package labels claiming that eating a handful a day might - just might - help your heart, under a controversial new program allowing food makers to advertise possible health benefits before they're proven.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration loosened restrictions on how much scientific proof is required to put a health claim on food packages. Tuesday, the FDA approved the first of the new "qualified health claims" for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and peanuts.

Packages of those nuts may now bear the following line: "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."

That's roughly a third of a cup of nuts, or a handful.

It may sound like surprising advice considering that nuts tend to be high in calories and fat.

Indeed, FDA didn't approve the claim for some of the fattiest nuts, agency nutrition chief Christine Taylor said. Macadamias, for instance, contain too much heart-damaging saturated fat to make the cut.

But the American Heart Association has long said certain nuts contain mostly different types of fat that are heart-healthy: that is, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat. The nut industry cited the AHA position and some studies that back nut-rich diets in seeking FDA permission to promote the possible benefit.

Only packages of approved nuts can bear the claim, not fat-packed ice cream with a nut sprinkle, and packages must direct consumers to check the back label for full calorie and fat disclosure, said FDA's Taylor.

Given new understanding of the role of different fats, "the feeling was as long as they help consumers to understand this contributes quite a bit of calories, they probably should be allowed to make the claim," said Taylor.

The decision drew the ire of consumer groups, who say at best, looser health claims will confuse Americans reading wishy-washy advice on food packages that once could bear only scientifically proven statements.

"It would be unfortunate if the claim turned out later to be untrue. No one's going to get their money back," said Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

It's also unclear if consumers will understand the disclaimer that nuts' benefits are as yet unproven, Silverglade said.

The nut industry is talking with FDA about more research to pin down proof of the health benefits of nuts, Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the Almond Board of California suggests one way consumers could make use of the new information: substitute a handful of nuts instead of a less healthful snack.

The food industry has long lobbied the FDA to allow packages to carry labels advertising possible health benefits, on the theory that consumers should be allowed to benefit from, and can make sense of, evolving or uncertain science.

Faced with court decisions that limit restrictions on product labeling, the FDA designed a program that will allow such unproven claims, but with disclaimers designed to discourage the chanciest ones. The agency will rank claims from scientifically proven "A" ratings down to "D" ratings with almost no evidence.

The new program formally starts in September, but the nut industry had sought its heart-health claim last fall and was allowed in early when FDA decided the benefit is backed only by B-level promising evidence, not A-level proof.

Next on the list to be considered by the FDA's label and ad monitors is the often-heard, but still unproven, claim that eating several servings a week of salmon and certain other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of heart disease.