The GAO – Government Accountability Office – (yes, there is such a thing) issued a report late last week, telling the FDA it needs to do a better job protecting consumers from misleading health claims on products.
According to the GAO,
the FDA’s efforts to protect consumers from false or misleading claims are conducted in a complex and challenging legal and regulatory environment…
[The FDA should] request from Congress the authorities needed to access evidence from food companies regarding potentially false or misleading structure/function or other claims on food that would allow the agency to establish whether there is scientific support for the claims.
In 2002, manufacturers sued the FDA for limiting their freedom of speech by disallowing certain dubious health claims. They won. Ever since, consumers have been bombarded with misleading and confusing claims about the wonderful properties of packaged foods, even in places where the scientific evidence is flimsy at best.
Today there are 3 types of health claims allowed on food packages:
- Regular health claims – need to be backed up by “significant scientific agreement”.
- Qualified health claims – (as a result of the 2002 law suit) require much less rigid science, as long as the claim is qualified with a disclaimer (usually in microscopic print). For example: tomatoes/tomato sauce and prostate cancer: “Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half to one cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.”
- Structure / function claims – not really health claims, but rather stating how something in the food has an effect on some structure in the body, or some function in the body.
Many manufacturers like to use structure / function claims because they don’t require “fine print” notices that can serve as a turnoff. But they rely on poor or limited evidence in many cases, just like the qualified health claims.
Which is why the GAO is recommending the FDA demand more information from manufacturers. Easier said than done. The FDA has no authority to request such evidence from companies. Which means Congress has to legislate. Will representatives, many whom are backed by contributions from the food industry, be willing to provide MORE power to the FDA? probably not.
What to do at the supermarket:
Please ignore health claims on food products. Read ingredient lists and nutrition labels to know what you are really getting.