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Mind Your Claims

The FDA has sent out warning letters to 17 food manufacturers claiming that certain products violate the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The development follows last October’s statement by FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg urging companies to review their nutrition claims.

Yesterday’s letters serve as a reminder that the agency is serious about holding manufacturers accountable for the promises they make to their customers. The vast majority of companies making health claims have been careful to include studies, research findings and other data supporting their claims on their websites, or otherwise make them available to consumers.

Even so, the FDA is saying companies continue to overreach, or neglect to balance their claims with statements that point out other nutritional aspects that are not so healthy.

For example, many of the manufacturers on this most recent list were cited for making claims such as “0 grams of trans fat” – a statement that, in and of itself, is accurate. However, many of these products contain significant amounts of saturated (bad) fats, or cholesterol, or sodium. FDA regulations state that if these nutritional elements exceed a certain amount, then manufacturers must include an ancillary notice next to any front-panel health declarations that directs the consumer to the Nutrition Facts panel.

There, they’ll see that the product does not have any trans fats as stated but, Wow, it’s loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol or sodium. No thanks, I’ll pass.

Besides unauthorized nutrient content claims , the violations mentioned in the warning letters include unauthorized health claims and the unauthorized use of terms such as “healthy.”

Some companies have stepped up and have notified their customers of the FDA’s complaints. But not all manufacturers have published statements acknowledging receipt of the FDA’s letters. Perhaps they’re still developing a response. They shouldn’t wait too long, though. A study released by the FDA just as these warning letters were going out shows American consumers harbor lingering suspicions about health claims.

The 2008 U.S. Health and Diet Survey found that — while more than half of those surveyed “often” read a label the first time they buy a product — many remain skeptical of industry claims such as “low fat,” “high fiber” or “cholesterol free” on the front of packages.

So, more consumers than ever are reading the labels. Let’s not disappoint them.