Health Claims Part 1-Untangling the Mess

It's hard to keep up with the flurry of nutrition information in commercial media.  One day it's chocolate for the heart, the next day it's beer for bone health, and those who market these wonder foods promise that health and wellness is simply a fork's-reach away.  In addition, the clamor of health claims gets louder in the grocery store, where the front of food packages scream various messages such as "anti-oxidant rich," "zero trans fat," and "high fiber" in a myriad of colorful checkmarks, hearts, and cryptic symbols.  Even if you have enough time to flip the package over, you'll find the Nutrition Facts Label with its microscopic ingredients list.
So who makes the rules about nutrition labeling?  Since when did nutrition become a marketing platform for the food industry to increase consumer demand?
picture from yumsugar
Back to the Basics.  Definitions.
Actually, I can't provide all the answers.  I really just wanted to share what I'm learning from my class, The Public Policy of Health Claims.  My professor has combined guest lecturers, class discussions, and readings to present an overview of changing US policies governing the use of health information in the food and dietary supplement industry.  I'm gradually understanding that the marketing of nutrition is a business- a big money business!
What is a food? Food is a product consumed primarily for taste, aroma, or nutritive value.
What is a drug? A drug is a product intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease; or a product intended to affect the structure or any function of the body.  Hold on. Humans have always attributed mystical powers to food in the curing of ailments and prevention of disease.  Is food a drug?
What is a dietary supplement? Vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, or amino acids.
Who are the FDA?  Food and Drug Administration.  These guys regulate food and dietary supplement labeling.  They approve and regulate all health claims, which must be registered in the Federal Registry.
What is the FTC?  Federal Trade Commission.  These guys regulate advertising.  So does the FTC regulate online advertising?  Is there a way to even enforce online advertising?
What is a health claim?  Any statement or symbol that relates a food substance to a disease condition.  These claims are have strong scientific proof and are registered with the FDA.  This is the ultimate gold star for the food industry.  Example: Calcium and/or Vitamin D and the prevention of osteoporosis.
What is a structure function claim?  Statements about food substances and their effects on body structures or functions.  This is not an official health claim because it does not reference a disease.  The food industry likes these too!  Example: "Calcium helps build strong bones."
What is a qualified health claim?  Statements about food benefits that do not have conclusive scientific backing. This is not an official health claim.  Example: Green tea and cancer.  "One weak and limited study does not show that 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, the FDA concludes that it is highly unlikely that green tea reduces the risk of prostate cancer."
What is the 1st Amendment?  The 1st amendment grants the right to free speech.  This applies to you and me, but what about the food companies?  Is there freedom of commercial speech?  Can food companies make claims about their products for economic benefit?  Yes, commercial speech is being granted more and more freedom since a supreme court ruling in 1999.  Come back soon, I'll explain this in Part 2.
If you want to affect policy, should you become a lawyer or a scientist?  Um...?
flickr picture from Jayna
Sorting Through the Mess
So what have I concluded thus far?  (This blog post is really helping me study for this class!)
  • There is a constant balancing act between emerging scientific research on food componants and the marketing of those research findings for consumer health and disease prevention.
  • The food industry wants to increase the demand of food, and nutrition is one way to increase sales through the promise of wellness.
  • Meanwhile the government is constantly teetering between tight regulatory and lax regulatory control of food labeling.  
  • Then there's the health professionals, who are desperately trying to help consumers make the right dietary choices.
  • This is so complicated.  I understand it now, but who knows about tomorow!
Coming next...A chronological snapshot of Health Claims Policy in the United States.  How did we get to where we are now?


Emily said...

It is so confusing, isn't it?! I think that if we as nutrition professionals are sometimes lost in all of the labeling and regulation (or lack thereof), the general public must be even more so.

Improving the nutrition status of our nation is no easy task...[sigh].

Post a Comment

Disclaimer. I am not a Registered Dietitian yet. I provide nutrition information intended for the general public, not for the treatment of a specific medical condition. I try to use scientific research and reliable sources when forming my opinions and messages.
Related Posts with Thumbnails