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Herbal food additives: Making sense of the claims


In this story:

Labeling loopholes

Manufacturers must make their case

Read the fine print


(WebMD) -- Can I find happiness in a bag of corn chips? That's what I wonder as I peruse the shelves at my local natural market and contemplate a tasty-looking, kava kava-enriched snack that, its label says, "promotes relaxation" and "uplifts your spirits." Then there's the raspberry smoothie with ginseng that promises an energy boost, and the soy burger and the butter substitute that guarantee healthy cholesterol levels. Buy these products, their labels seem to promise, and you will stay healthy, feel good and quench your appetite all at the same time. Is this for real?

It's hard to tell, especially when only some of the claims have passed muster with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). With the recent flood of "functional foods" -- those that contain added vitamins and herbs -- blanketing the market, there are now more products than ever making iffy claims. That makes it difficult to know which claims to believe, but knowing exactly what the FDA considers legit -- and why -- can help you make more informed decisions.

Labeling loopholes

In your travels down the supermarket aisles, you're likely to see a lot of food packages sporting health claims -- statements that link ingredients in that product directly to a reduced risk of disease or other health-related condition.

However, there are only 11 health claims that are officially approved by the FDA, and those approvals, says an FDA spokesperson, came only after the agency reviewed years' worth of research and recommendations from scientific bodies like the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association.

Some legitimate claims, for example, are that ingesting more calcium helps prevent osteoporosis; that taking in less sodium can offset hypertension; that eating foods with soy protein and less saturated fat can help decrease cholesterol and prevent coronary heart disease and that eating more fiber-rich grain products, fruits and vegetables can prevent some cancers and coronary heart disease. Other claims considered legitimate are that soluble fiber (like the kind found in oats) can prevent coronary heart disease, folate can prevent neural-tube birth defects and dietary sugar alcohols (like sorbitol) can prevent cavities.

So, why then is my grocery store hawking echinacea-enhanced cereals that promise to "support the body's natural defenses" and juices with ginkgo and ginseng that vow to "promote circulation to the brain and maintain a plentiful blood flow to the central nervous system"?

Because of a loophole called "structure-function claims."

This FDA-created category allows food and dietary supplement manufacturers to state that their products are known to affect the structure or the function of the body. For example, a package of fiber-rich soup mix can bear a label advertising the product's ability to lower cholesterol. However, the FDA doesn't allow the manufacturer to claim that the soup will prevent heart disease. So, while the makers of a cereal with echinacea may say that ingredients in their product help boost the immune system, they cannot go the extra step and say that the product prevents colds. Either way, consumers have no way of knowing, short of contacting the food manufacturers or doing their own investigation, which products truly fulfill the claims on the package.

The trouble is, many consumers often make the leap themselves. "Most people will look at a product that says 'increases immune function' and assume that it also reduces the risk of colds, whether it's true or not," says registered dietician Constance Geiger, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the division of food and nutrition at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center.

Manufacturers must make their case

In the past, you wouldn't have found too many foods with structure-function claims; they were used mostly with regard to supplements. But that was before the advent of functional foods, which blur the lines between supplements and groceries.

All these new products, however, have health experts complaining. Recently, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer watchdog group, formally complained to the FDA about more than 75 products. Among them are those containing herbs like kava kava that are billed as "relaxation drinks" and some with ginkgo biloba labeled "mind enhancing."

"Often these products don't contain enough of the ingredient to have an effect," says Ilene Ringel Heller, one of CSPI's senior staff attorneys, who helped write the 158-page complaint to the FDA. "But even if they do, we don't know if they are safe and what the effects will be in the long run."

To avoid a potential crackdown by the FDA, some food manufacturers have gone to great effort and expense to prove their case before making any claims about their products' health-boosting properties. Case in point: Johnson and Johnson's Benecol, a butter substitute that contains ingredients called plant stanols, which have been found to lower cholesterol. When the company was first ready to introduce the product into the U.S. market -- it's already been used in Finland for many years -- it faced opposition by the FDA. The agency was unsure of its health claims. Johnson and Johnson then spent the time and money to eventually present the FDA with 20 studies assuring Benecol's efficacy.

At first, the FDA agreed to allow Benecol packages to advertise its proven ability to lower cholesterol levels, a structure-function claim, but not its ability to reduce the risk of heart disease, a health claim. The situation changed this month after the FDA reviewed more evidence and gave the green light for packages to bear labels promoting heart disease prevention.

Read the fine print

Whether you believe a health claim is approved by the FDA or not, it pays to read beyond the claim itself. How else, for instance, would you know that it takes three servings of Benecol a day for two weeks to achieve LDL cholesterol-reduction unless you read the fine print? Or that it takes not just the 3 grams of soluble fiber from a daily bowl of oatmeal to reduce your risk of heart disease, but also an overall diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol?

Ultimately, you can cut through most of the health hype on food labels by looking first at the "Nutrition Facts" panel on the package, says registered dietician Cathleen Zelman, an Atlanta-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. If that doesn't contain all the information you need, scan the ingredient list. Any foods that list fat and sugar sources high up on the list are probably not your healthiest picks -- even if that's what their manufacturers would like you to believe.

Then it's up to you to make the decision: to buy or not to buy. In my case, I've decided to purchase those pleasure-inducing, kava kava-fortified corn chips. Judging from the list of ingredients, there's probably not enough of that herb in the chips to give me a jolt of happiness. Besides, researchers haven't even proved that kava kava can chase away the blues in the first place. But that bag of chips definitely contains a delicious amount of salt and fat. And that, I confess, will make me and my taste buds happy -- if not particularly healthy.

© 2000 Healtheon/WebMD. All rights reserved.

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