Missed Opportunities

The produce industry is on the side of both logic and justice in opposing legislation to allow health claims on certain dietary supplements (vitamins, mineral, amino acids, etc.) that are not allowed on foods (see this month’s Washington Grapevine, page 8). It is obviously unacceptable and unfair to have one food product held to a higher standard than another in terms of what their manufacturers can and cannot advertise as a benefit of their product. But in pursuit of the industry’s immediate self-interest of preventing unfair competition, we may be missing out on an opportunity to set the stage for loosening the restrictions on health claims for produce.

The issue is simple; the supplement producers and their supporters in Congress want the ability to make health claims that are not supported by the sort of rigorous study that foods are required to have before they can make health claims. If you assume that the present standard for food is the correct one, then fairness dictates that the supplement people conform to the same standards placed upon the other food producers.

But the current food standard is absurdly restrictive and extremely detrimental to public health in that it reduces the dissemination of consumer knowledge on health-related issues by preventing food producers from using health claims in marketing and advertising. Even worse, by restricting the use of health claims, the focus of competition in the food industry shifts to non-health areas, such as flavor, texture, etc., instead of making healthier products.

The superficial sensibility of only having health claims made when they are “proven” facts is belied by the severe restriction that this places on food marketers. On the day I write this, a local newspaper article reveals research indicating that eating garlic can decrease serum cholesterol levels. But garlic marketers cannot use this important information in advertising. Why? Because the FDA has not accepted it as an approved health claim. Why not? Has the FDA found this to be untrue? No. In fact, if the garlic industry would spend millions of dollars to conduct additional studies and a few more million on lobbyists, it may well be they could get it approved.

We have been down the health-claim road before. Back in 1957, the American Heart Association found that the consumption of high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat contributed to heart disease. When sellers of products tried to use this new information in ads, the Food and Drug Administration threatened to pull the foods off the shelves on the grounds that, as they were making health claims, they were really drugs and thus should spend millions doing clinical trials, etc.

By 1961, the American Heart Association was urging food manufacturers to give label information detailing the quantity of saturated, monounsaturated, and poly-unsaturated fats. But the FDA forbade even the mention of the words “cholesterol” or “polyunsaturated fat” since the FDA believed that the mere mention of these words would dazzle consumers into thinking that eating these products would prevent heart disease. It wasn’t until the seventies that the FDA gave up and allowed food producers to let consumers know which foods met the standards that their health advisors were urging them to eat.

Among the problems regarding the health claim policy currently imposed on food: 1) It forbids honest and truthful claims. Products that normally have no cholesterol cannot be labeled “cholesterol-free”. You cannot even say, “Some physicians believe” or “According to a study at Harvard University” or even “Dr. Linus Pauling believes…” 2) The government and nutritional groups do not have the resources or ability to spread a health message on the same level as private industry. The produce industry, for example, gets great benefit from the fact that consumers are aware that fiber is good for people. But where did people learn this? Not from brochures distributed by the Surgeon General; they learned it from Kellogg’s, who back in 1984 spent millions of dollars promoting the message on the relationship between fiber and cancer.

The truth is that the produce industry is no stranger to the effect of health claims on public perceptions of the product. At the beginning of this century, Sunkist advertised oranges with health claims that would be illegal today. But the massive advertising campaign influenced attitudes toward oranges and orange juice; this helps explain why people today consider citrus such a healthy food.

Should there be any restrictions on health claims on foods and supplements? Is there a role for the government here? There are certainly ways the government could be useful; some terms such as “lite” are made more meaningful if definitions are established for them. And certainly, the nutritional labels can be helpful by providing a standard comparison (although companies should always be free to list additional items on the label as long as they are truthful).

Advertising is an enormously effective way to communicate to people about health and food. No one label or health claim provides all the answers, and people don’t expect them to. But overall, consumers will learn more with advertising than they would if this communication is restricted. And if the focus of marketing is on health benefits, you will also have better, healthier products produced.

There is a streak of authoritarianism in these attempts to restrict health claims. It is the government saying, “We know the truth and we will make sure you only hear our truth” – this isn’t good for consumers. It isn’t necessary to be so protective, and with our fine produce products, rich in disease-preventing capabilities, it is not in our best interest to encourage this restriction on our marketing capabilities.

I understand the desire to stop the supplement people from saying things produce people can’t, but instead of bringing them into the restrictive web that food is in, maybe we should let the bill pass and use the argument for fairness as a way to press for the liberalization of health claims by fruit and vegetable marketers.