FDA should copy EFSA for health claims, says Scientific American

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

FDA should copy EFSA for health claims, says Scientific American

Related tags: Health claims, Nutrition

The FDA is too lenient regarding health claims and should follow EFSA’s lead and hold foods “to the same scientific standards as those for drugs”, according to the editors of Scientific American.

In the most recent issue of the magazine, an editorial entitled “Snake oil in the supermarket”​states that consumers are currently getting a “rotten deal”​ with regards functional foods.

“Although health claims for foods may appear to be authoritative, in many cases science does not support them and the government does not endorse them,” ​state the authors. “Not only do these products, many of which are nutritionally bereft, fail to deliver on their promises, but they may also give consumers a false sense of security that discourages them from taking more effective measures to attain wellness, such as exercise or medication.”

The editors do note the warning letters sent to 17 food and beverage manufacturers in March, and describe this as an “unusually expansive crackdown for the agency”​. Only this week FDA issued a warning letter to Unilever for health claims related to cholesterol reduction on its Lipton Green Tea 100 percent Naturally Decaffeinated product.

“Holding health claims for food to the same scientific standards as those for drugs—and requiring manufacturers to convince the FDA of alleged benefits before releasing products for sale—would result in far fewer health claims on packaged foods, if recent developments in Europe are any indication,” ​wrote the editors. “In 2006 Europe began holding food makers to rigorous scientific standards. Since then, the European Food Safety Authority has rejected, on the basis of insufficient evidence, a whopping 80 percent of the more than 900 claims they have assessed thus far.”

Dannon versus Danone

To show the differences between the FDA and EFSA approaches, the editors look to Danone/Dannon. According to the Scientific American article, US visitors to the Activia website “prominently displays the product’s putative health benefits, asserting that it can ‘help regulate your digestive system by helping reduce long intestinal transit time’.”

“The UK version, on the other hand, says only that the yogurt contains an exclusive bacterial culture and, like other yogurts, is a source of calcium and vitamin B12,”​ they add.

Lame arguments

To conclude, the editors state: “Industry representatives complain that having to prove claims about the health benefits of food would cost too much and take too long. It’s a lame argument. The nation is currently engaged in a struggle against skyrocketing rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases that are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. In this context, unsubstantiated health claims on processed foods are a harmful abuse of science that we should not tolerate.”

Related topics: Regulation, Product claims

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1 comment

Censorship is Not the Answer

Posted by Jonathan W. Emord,

The editors of Scientific American would deny consumers freedom of informed choice on the offensive, paternalistic notion that the government is better put to assess the merits of uncertain science than the consumer in the market. On that predicate, they would invest political appointees whose decision-making is anything but unbiased with the power to condemn truthful nutrient-disease information on the basis that it is not proven to a degree those appointees regard as near certain. There is an alternative to this highly paternalistic approach. That view allows science that is less than certain to reach consumers accompanied by disclaimers that reveal the inconclusiveness. In the real world almost nothing in science is provable to a certain degree, yet consumers make decisions daily in this environment of uncertainty. They are best put at making an educated choice if they know of relevant scientific associations that are supported by credible albeit inconclusive evidence. On this basis, consumers may consciously choose supplements with folic acid in them on the bet that they will reduce the incidence of neural tube defect births; supplements with omega-3 fatty acids in them on the best that they will reduce the incidence of sudden death heart attacks; or supplements with pre and probiotics in them on the bet that they will improve their immune system and digestive health. That the evidence supporting these relationships is not yet proven conclusively simply means that to avoid deception that fact must be revealed to consumers. It does not mean that we should vest in bureaucrats discretionary power to deny consumers essential science because those bureaucrats harbor a prejudice that it will ultimately prove false. Not being omniscient, scientists with this political power to censor will err again and again, all the while consumers will be denied information that could have improved their health, extended their lives, or avoided disabling, even deadly, diseases. Freedom of informed choice is far better than the draconian system of state paternalism imposed by EFSA. The editors of Scientific American have betrayed free speech in science in favor of Lysenkoism.

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