Food labels and the issue of what constitutes a healthy diet have been contentions ever since the Food and Drug Administration was given the power to regulate what businesses could say about their products. Whenever an advertiser wants to say that eating a particular cereal or vitamin supplement will make you healthy, the FDA bureaucracy wants to have its say in whether the claim is legal or not.
In 1984, Kellogg put this message on its All-Bran cereals:
The National Cancer Institute believes eating the right foods may reduce your risk of cancer. Here are their recommendations: Eat high-fiber foods. A growing body of evidence says high-fiber foods are important to good health. That's why a healthy diet includes high-fiber foods like bran cereals.
The National Cancer Institute believed that Kellogg's statement was a perfectly reasonable message about health, but Kellogg's use of the NCI and making health claims for a non-medical product surprised the FDA. The FDA realized that if Kellogg was not stopped, health claims would slip from their regulatory grasp.
Their objections were overruled when the Federal Trade Commission supported the NCI by pointing out the public benefits of spreading information about dietary health. All-Bran increased its market share 47% in six months, despite tasting and looking more akin to twigs and straw than to edible food. The food industry realized that health claims sold products even if they tasted hideous and looked appalling!
The battle was on. Lobbying exploded, along with the expected surge in campaign contributions. New laws were passed in 1994 to permit most of the claims the FDA had questioned and an ongoing series of lawsuits keeps lawyers busy arguing over when a health claim crosses the line so that a food becomes a drug.
The Wall Street Journal reports the latest salvo in the ongoing food fight:
Last year the Food and Drug Administration made itself fodder for late-night comedy when it warned the manufacturer of Cheerios against boasting about some of the cereal's health benefits. "We have determined [Cheerios] is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug," the FDA said in a letter to General Mills. [emphasis added]
By this logic, consumers would need a prescription to buy a box of the oats.
The problem is that the FDA is applying the same standards to health claims for foods to health claims for drugs.
Drugs have to be approved via an immensely expensive process called "clinical trials." Due to the perfectly normal accumulation of regulatory detail over the years it can cost as much as a billion dollars to get a new drug approved. There's no way that any cereal company could spent that much money proving that a high fiber diet lowers the risk of colon cancer; the medical community uses other research methodologies to come to that sort of conclusion.
Since they aren't allowed to promote health benefits, food makers aim their research at making foods taste better so people will eat more. The goal is to find some combination of spices, coloring, and other legal additives that will induce a craving for the food. The FDA can't stop, say, McDonalds from claiming that their burgers taste great. If McDonalds can discover some combination of seasoning which makes their meals addictive or at least habit-forming, their sales go up.
As Mrs. Obama tries to draw attention to her battle against childhood obesity, one of her main problems is that the FDA doesn't let food manufacturers advertise the health effects of their foods. Her efforts to get children to help grow sweet potatoes on the White House lawn may get her some free TV exposure, but she can't compete with the advertising budgets of the food manufacturers who are not permitted to talk about health. All they're allowed to do is list portion sizes and ingredients which isn't much help to someone who's trying to lose weight.
There is a great deal of well-founded research about how nutrition interacts with genetics. It's possible that McDonald's foods are addictive for some portion of the population.
The fact that these people think McDonalds tastes great, visit often, and order the largest portions available is good for McDonalds, but not for them. Since taste and portion size are the only characteristics McDonalds is allowed to promote, the fact that the FDA won't let food manufacturers discuss health benefits makes it harder for society to fight obesity.
It would be better for national health if the FDA would let advertisers like Kelloggs make substantiated health claims. No PhD is required to know that even a sugary cereal like Frosted Flakes is better for you than super-sized fries, but it wouldn't hurt the general public to be reminded of that fact.
We know from the way All-Bran gained market share that health claims in food advertising can affect behavior. General Mills' statement about Cheerios was based on well-accepted research which showed that diets high in soluble oat fiber can reduce the risk of heart attacks. The claim that eating Cheerios could lower cholesterol levels, an effect which is typically achieved by buying expensive prescription drugs, is what made Cheerios' claim illegal according to the FDA.
Why all this foot-dragging over claims which are objectively true and well supported by logic and scientific research? The FDA doesn't generally care whether a claim is true or not; or, put another way, proving that a "medical" claim is true has no bearing on whether the FDA will allow it.
Back when the cholesterol crisis first came up, the makers of Crisco vegetable shortening wanted to put "cholesterol free" on their labels because customers were confused about which products contained cholesterol and which did not. In point of scientific fact, by the chemical nature of the lard in Crisco, there is in fact no cholesterol contained therein. The FDA did not permit Crisco and other similar products to be advertised as cholesterol-free even though the claim was perfectly true.
In spite of the 1994 law which permitted health claims, food manufacturers had to take the FDA to court to get them to back off:
In Pearson v Shalala (1999), the DC circuit court of appeals chastised the agency, saying that it was "skeptical the government could demonstrate with empirical evidence" that health claims with disclaimers would "bewilder" consumers.
Starting in 2003, the FDA allowed medical claims so long as the advertising included some reference to the relative reliability of the information. That led to labels saying "This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease." which you see on supplement labels.
The recent attack on Cheerios represents a change to the pre-2003 view that health claims for food are not permitted unless the ingredients have been analyzed through clinical trails. Since this is impossible with foods, manufacturers will probably end up back in court.
From the FDA's point of view, the more often food manufacturers sue, the better, because they can get an increase in their budget for legal services. In the meantime, however, they're denying us the benefit of getting up-to-date information about the effects of diet on health from people who spend far more money promoting their view of food than anyone else.
If all that manufacturers can promote is taste and portion size, that's what they'll promote, and Americans will get fatter. The fatter Americans get, the more health costs will go up, and the more health care will cost us all.
Government regulations may be hazardous to your health, both physical and financial. And let's not even start discussing the effect of our government's agricultural subsidies on diet!
|Lettuce, anyone? You'll have to pay for it yourself.|