The FDA issued warning letters to 29 companies last October, telling them to stop making disease prevention or treatment claims on their websites and product labels.
The government body is unconvinced that cherries pack as much of a health punch as some marketers of cherry-based products are claiming, and moved to protect consumers.
In the absence of formal health claims linking cherries to a reduce risk of any disease or specific effect on the body, the FDA told the companies that wording on their websites and/or product labels constitutes "serious violations of the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act".
Jane Depriest of the Cherry Marketing Institute (CMI) told NutraIngredients-USA.com: "All 29 companies responded. It would be against the law not to. The problem comes with having a health claim that it is not approved."
Health claims on product packaging must go through a rigorous FDA approval process, whereby the agency reviews the scientific data in support of a specific ingredient.
However with regard to websites, Depriest said: "The FDA does not have specific rules on this. The general feeling is you can spread your message out by a couple of clicks. So a company could link to the health message but it must be formally two clicks away from order forms and sales pages."
CMI supports the US tart cherry industry, and its website is often used on cherry company sites as a springboard for positive product assertions and health claims.
But regardless of FDA guidelines, Depriest thinks the interest in healthy foods is set to grow, and is convinced people who use cherry products will continue to do so and pass recommendations on to family and friends.
And the industry is supported by a number of studies that point to the health benefits of cherries. These include the work of Russel Reiter and colleagues at the University of Texas Health Center, who detected high levels of the anti-oxidant melatonin, understood to function as a free-radical scavenger, in tart cherries.