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Activist doctors halt dairy weight loss ads

By Clarisse Douaud , 15-May-2007

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the nation's dairy industry are putting a stop to claims in their advertising that dairy products cause weight loss following a petition from the controversial Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed in 2005.

PCRM - dubbed by critics in the medical community and various industries as a fanatical animal rights group - received a letter from the Federal Trade Commission May 3 stating that advertising from two national dairy promotion programs overseen by the USDA must desist from relating dairy products to weight management and loss. The programs are the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board's "Milk your diet. Lose weight!" campaign and the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board's "3-a-day. Burn more fat, lose weight." campaign. At odds here are the health benefits of milk, which have come to be taken as popular fact in North America. They have been propped up by advertising from the dairy industry and been countered by the concerns of both the mainstream and complementary medical community. But the dairy industry says it was marketing within what is promoted as part of national nutritional recommendations including the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. "The Dietary Guidelines recommend three servings of lowfat or fat-free milk, cheese or yogurt everyday as part of a healthy diet," said Greg Miller, senior vice president of science at the National Dairy Council. "The Guidelines also state that adults and children should not avoid milk and milk products because of concerns that these foods lead to weight gain." Despite the recent agreement to change its advertising, the National Dairy Council says it is standing behind its weight-loss messages and the science it has compiled to support them. But PCRM says the industry has been promoting misinformation. "The dairy industry has been lying to American consumers for years," Dan Kinburn, PCRM's general counsel, told "They treat milk as a health food, when really it is high in saturated, cholesterol and sugar." Critics of dairy products alleged health benefits say that their functional properties can actually be obtained from numerous other sources, and that the drawbacks of milk mean that it should not be marketed as a healthy product. Still, as the dairy industry is one of the mainstays of the food industry in Western countries it has sizeable market share and significant political clout. As a result, PCRM is surprised its petition had an effect. "This is the first time the US government has stood up to the dairy industry," said Kinburn. "For this administration to turn and put pressure on one of the most powerful industries to do the right thing is incredible." PCRM compiled studies that have been conducted in the past on dairy products and weight loss, and the dairy industry itself has drawn on from the results. It determined that the conclusion that dairy can reduce weight is unfounded due to the nature of these studies and their allegedly inconclusive results. "They are based on studies performed on mice, thus inconsequential to a human health claim, and on very limited and unconfirmed human studies that rely on caloric restriction to show weight loss," stated PCRM in its petition. According to PCRM, of the 26 studies it originally reviewed as part of the petition, only one - involving calcium supplements rather than dairy products - suggested any effect on body weight, and none showed any effect on body fat. "Only one researcher - who has a financial stake in the outcome - showed a statistically significant effect of dairy product consumption on weight loss and only when paired with a strict caloric restriction," argued PCRM in the petition. PCRM's claims that University of Tennessee's Dr. Michael Zemel has a financial stake in the dairy industry because he has received grants from the National Dairy Council, as well as from the breakfast cereal and yoghurt industries, to conduct his studies. In addition, he allegedly holds a US patent for the method of using calcium or dairy products to treat and prevent obesity. "Because dairy advertisers have based their claim primarily on Dr. Zemel's research, which has financial ties to the industries involved and has serious methodological problems, we will give special consideration to his studies," said PCRM in its petition, which goes on to outline how the results show no statistically significant weight loss in participants. FTC took PCRM's petition into account and based its decisions on it. In the subsequent letter to PCRM, Lydia Parnes, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, concluded: "We have now been advised by USDA staff that the Dairy Board, the Fluid Milk Board, and other affiliated entities that engage in advertising and promotional activities on behalf of the two boards, have determined that the best course of action at this time is to discontinue all advertising and other marketing activities involving weight loss claims until further research provides stronger, more conclusive evidence of an association between dairy consumption and weight loss." The decision marks a victory for PCRM, despite the fact that the weight loss marketing angle only represents one part of the multi-million dollar milk campaigns. The National Dairy Council says exploring the connection between dairy and weight management remains a major nutrition research platform.

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