col Beware food companies' health claims

By Jane E. Brody

New York Times News Service

You may think that a genuine interest in consumer health prompts food companies to market products that claim to reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer or help people lose weight. Think again.

Many food companies are interested in one thing -- the most efficient route to extra sales. The more products consumers buy and the more of them they eat, the fatter the companies' coffers. And, alas, the fatter the consumers are likely to be, as well.

The concerns and interests of consumers are fickle, and food companies are quick to cash in on them. In recent years, trends have shifted from low salt to high fiber to fat free and now to low in carbohydrates, high in anti-oxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and free of trans fats. Food companies have introduced new, reformulated or repositioned products to satisfy every new vogue in nutrition, regardless of how well or poorly grounded it may be in science.


But in what has become a near free-for-all marketplace for health claims on food products, consumers are often convinced that the more they eat of these products, the healthier, or thinner, they are likely to be.

Once more, think again. Congress has made it extremely difficult for the Food and Drug Administration to closely regulate health-related claims for foods and supplements, and the agency is struggling to catch up with the flood of recent claims for low-carb products. Meanwhile, health claims and endorsements from organizations like the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association often appear on products that nutrition specialists consider anything but healthful.

Dr. Marion Nestle, former head of nutrition and now professor of public health at New York University, calls such claims "calorie distracters" because they carry a subtle but highly seductive message that it is OK to eat unlimited amounts because the food is supposedly good for you.

These days, consumers can find on grocery shelves many snacks advertised as low or lower in carbohydrates or as containing no trans fats, the heart-damaging substances formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated. Hundreds of products carry the American Heart Association Food Certification Program heart check mark. To participate in the association's program, these products must meet the nutritional requirements established by the heart association, which parallel those set by the FDA and the Department of Agriculture for a product to make a coronary heart disease health claim.

But the criteria do not include low sugar content because there is not sufficient scientific evidence at this time that sugar is a risk factor for heart disease.

Thus, the heart association has endorsed General Mills' Cocoa Puffs cereal, a cup of which contains 120 calories, 14 grams of sugar and no fiber, and the company's Cookie Crisp cereal, with 120 calories and 13 grams of sugar per cup. Both products derive more than 40 percent of their calories from sugar -- hardly a nourishing start to the day, even if they are low in fat.

There are many other health-related claims, none of which require the prior approval of the Food and Drug Association, including these:

M&M; Mars' Cocoa Via chocolate, made with "natural plant extracts which are proven to maintain healthy cholesterol levels," leaves the consumer with the impression that it might protect against heart disease.


Dreamfield's low-carbohydrate pasta states "now you can eat the pasta you love without all the carbs you don't." Yet, like regular pasta, Dreamfield's has enriched semolina (wheat flour) as the first ingredient and derives 84 percent of its calories from carbohydrates.

The problem with such questionable health claims, Nestle said, is that they give people permission "to eat as much of them as they want."

"Yes, it's great to get the trans fats out of chips and pretzels," she said, "but these foods still have calories and they're still junk food."

If junk foods were a small fraction of what Americans consume, this would be of little concern to professionals who see their role as protectors of the public's health. But they're not.

The latest analysis of foods Americans eat, based on 24-hour consumption reports from 4,760 adult participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, revealed that at least 30 percent of total calories come from sugary and salty snacks and drinks: sweets, desserts, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, salty snacks and fruit-flavored drinks.

The researcher who did the analysis, Dr. Gladys Block, a professor of epidemiology and public health nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley, said of her findings: "What is really alarming is the major contribution of 'empty calories' in the American diet. We know people are eating a lot of junk food, but to have almost one-third of Americans' calories coming from those categories is a shocker. It's no wonder there's an obesity epidemic in this country."

Jane E. Brody is a New York Times staff writer and columnist who specializes in health and medical reporting.

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