New claims on foods can mislead & confuse, says CSPI

Consumers have good reason to be confused about the proliferation of claims on packaged foods, according to the June cover story in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) Nutrition Action Healthletter. That’s because a regulatory free-for-all gives food manufacturers carte blanche to claim that a food or supplement can affect the structure or function of the body, as long as they don’t claim the food prevents or treats a specific disease. And thanks to clever food-industry copywriters and unconcerned regulators at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these confusing claims are the latest trend in food labeling.

The distinction that the FDA draws between a so-called “structure/function claim” and a disease claim (which requires the FDA’s approval) can be comically minor, according to CSPI. “Improves sexual performance” is a claim about a function of the body, while “helps restore sexual potency” is a claim about treating a disease. “Suppresses appetite to aid weight loss” is a structure/function claim, while “suppresses appetite to treat obesity” is a disease claim. Structure/function claims can appear on almost any food, without anyone’s approval, and with virtually no supporting evidence, according to CSPI. Some foods that bear unsupported structure/function claims include:

  • Tropicana Twisters. The label claims that this “juice drink” has “FruitForce energy releasing B vitamins!” While B-vitamins do help cells convert food to energy, taking B-vitamins doesn’t make you feel more energetic. (And despite names like “Mango Tangerine Mambo”—and the pictures of fruit on the labels—Twisters are only 10 to 15 percent juice.)
  • Sunsweet Prune Juice+. The label screams “New! with Lutein for Healthy Eyes.” (The lutein is added, not naturally occurring.) The science linking lutein and eye health is spotty: the National Eye Institute calls it “speculative.” The extra lutein probably won’t hurt, but the claims on the labels oversell the potential benefits.
  • Total cereal. The large print promises “Lose More Weight with 100% Daily Value of Calcium”—and the small print hedges: “As part of a reduced calorie diet.” The label cites a study backing up the claim about calcium intake and weight loss, but CSPI says that the “recent study” is just one among other contradictory studies.
  • Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail. Ocean Spray congratulates itself for being a proud sponsor of the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, or the National Kidney Foundation, depending on which Ocean Spray beverage you choose. The Cranberry Juice Cocktail claims the drink “maintains urinary tract health,” but only two of the best five studies of that claim support it.

“The FDA is once again leaving consumers to fend for themselves in supermarket aisles that are becoming veritable minefields of false or misleading claims,” said CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. “Food companies are using every possible trick to dupe unsuspecting consumers who are trying to eat more healthfully. No wonder much of the public is confused about how to improve their diets.”

As of now, the loose structure/function claims are showing up on fairly decent foods, according to Bonnie Liebman, CSPI’s director of nutrition and the article’s author. But it is only a matter of time, she writes, “before they start to pop up in the cookie, chip, and soft-drink aisles.”

“Once the marketplace becomes flooded with poorly substantiated claims, consumers won’t trust any claims on labels or the companies that sell those foods,” says Liebman. The June issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter gives consumers some clues to sort out claims backed by strong evidence from those backed by weak or preliminary evidence.

Note:For the full article, The Claim Game, contact Adam Pearson at 202-777-8316 or