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Policing of health claims on food urged

By Molly Peterson
Bloomberg News / May 13, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Foods should be held to the same scientific standards as pharmaceuticals when promoted as having health benefits, a report ordered by federal regulators said yesterday.

The Food and Drug Administration does not police food makers’ medical claims as rigorously as those made by drug companies, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academies in Washington, concluded in its report. The cereal company touting the cholesterol-lowering power of Cheerios, for example, should have to prove the claim with more scientific research.

Health claims on foods can “impact a far greater portion of the population than do drug claims,’’ and may cause harm if they are misleading, the institute said. One of every four dollars spent by consumers pays for FDA-regulated products, the report found. Although 75 percent of those dollars go to foods, dietary supplements, and cosmetics, the FDA does not review these products before they go on sale.

Food marketing “has just been the Wild West, where people have been making amazing claims about foods that have been untethered to reality or evidence,’’ Harlan Krumholz, a professor of medicine at Yale who served on the panel that produced the report, said Tuesday.

The FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition has a $470 million budget to regulate the $525 billion food, supplement, and cosmetics industry, the Institute of Medicine said. Legislation might be required to empower the FDA to evaluate food companies’ claims of health benefits with “the same degree of scientific rigor’’ it uses in evaluating drugs, the report said.

“Health claims are about marketing; they’re not about health,’’ said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University. “If I were a food marketer, I would be trembling in my shoes.’’

Enhanced FDA regulation of food, if enacted by Congress, would be “an enormous change in the game,’’ because most claims that processed foods have health benefits cannot be scientifically proved, Nestle said.

The FDA warned General Mills in 2009 that its Cheerios marketing violated federal rules with claims that the cereal can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

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