The health claim conundrum

by Eric Schroeder
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When the Federal Trade Commission earlier this month settled a complaint against Tropicana Products, Inc. alleging the fruit juice maker misled consumers with its "Healthy Heart" claim, it brought to the fore an issue that has gained prominence in recent years as food and beverage companies vie for consumers’ dollars: The mighty health claim.

Health claims are just one of several types of claims allowed in food labeling. Unlike common claims focusing on nutritional content such as "low fat," "low calorie" and "low-carb," health claims must show a specific relationship between a nutrient or other substance in a food or beverage and a disease or health-related condition.

Health claims may be implied. This has never been as evident as it is today with myriad food and beverage products hitting the marketplace bearing the words "heart" and "health" in their name or featuring heart logos on containers and packages. Minute Maid has managed to use both methods in one of its newer products, Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise orange juice. In addition to the healthy name, the product features a red "reduce cholesterol" banner that circles an orange shaped like a heart.

The role health claims play in marketing has taken on greater importance as consumers not only have stepped up interest in eating better, but also as they have become savvier in deciphering product labels.

A study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration in March 1994 showed that 20% of consumers said they used health claims to make more informed food choices. That figure rose to 25% in 1995. Illustrating just how much consumer awareness about health and nutrition has grown, a study conducted earlier this month by FIND/SVP, Inc., New York, found that 64% of consumers use a package’s label as an educational tool, while 51% use in-store signs such as point-ofpurchase displays (ex. Diamond of California display shown at left).

Recognizing this growing attention on health claims, the government has taken greater interest in what statements companies are making on their products, a fact backed by the recent F.T.C.-Tropicana dispute (see Food Business News of June 14, Page 13).

As part of that dispute, Tropicana agreed to stop making "healthy heart" claims after the F.T.C. determined that Tropicana ads that ran between 2002 and early 2004 were not based on science. The ads claimed that drinking two to three cups of Tropicana orange juice each day would lower systolic blood pressure by 10 points, raise H.D.L. cholesterol by 21% and improve the H.D.L. to L.D.L. cholesterol ratio by 16%, increase blood folate levels by 45% and lower blood homocysteine levels by 11%. The F.T.C. charged that the benefits were not substantiated and claims of clinical support were false.

Tropicana’s dispute opened the door for Minute Maid to tout the benefits of its Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise orange juice, calling it "the only orange juice clinically proven to help reduce cholesterol." The F.D.A. approved the health claim connecting cholesterol and plant sterols in 2000.

"A clinical study showed Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise orange juice with CoroWise plant sterols was effective in decreasing total blood and L.D.L. cholesterol," said Dr. Rhona Applebaum, vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs for The Coca-Cola Co., parent company of Minute Maid. "For most consumers, being able to enjoy orange juice that has the added benefits of naturally sourced plant sterols is a simple step toward healthier cholesterol levels."

The Hain Celestial Group, Boulder, Colo., has done Minute Maid one better in its effort to deliver the health message of its Rice Dream Heartwise beverage. The first and only rice beverage to display a heart health claim, Rice Dream (like Minute Maid Premium Heart Wise) contains Corowise plant sterols. In addition to featuring multiple hearts on the product’s carton, the company offers consumers the opportunity to learn more about how Rice Dream is good for the heart through a minute-and-ahalf video on its Imagine Foods web site, www.imaginefoods.com.

The marketing of the whole grains health claim continues to heat up. With the recent recommendation in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to increase intake of whole grains and more grain-based foods companies are looking for ways to capitalize on the latest health message.

Although the health claim for whole grains has been around since 1999, it hasn’t been until the past year that some of the largest players in grainbased foods have put in place marketing programs based on the claim.

General Mills, which petitioned for the original whole grains health claim, kicked off the effort, announcing a major shift of making all its cereals whole grain. As part of its marketing of the launch, the Minneapolis-based company ran numerous television and newspaper advertisements and has created a web site, www.wholegrainlife.com, that appears as a newspaper (The Big G Gazette) detailing the benefits of a whole grain lifestyle.

Looking to make it even easier for consumers to identify whole grain products, the Whole Grains Council has created Whole Grain Stamps, which more companies are using to link their products with the nutritional attributes of whole grain consumption. The stamps were created to help consumers identify products that contain whole grains but may not necessarily meet the F.D.A. claim for whole grains.

"We think the Whole Grains Stamp adds value because the market has been kind of all or nothing," said Cynthia Harriman, spokesperson for the Whole Grains Council. "It’s valuable for manufacturers that can’t quite meet the whole F.D.A. claim and it gives consumers a way to measure and understand what is partially whole grains. It’s a way to identify products that are made with whole grains in a dietary significant amount."

In March 2004, the F.D.A. moved forward on a qualified health claim linking walnuts and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease. The claim states that "Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 oz of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease."

Vicki Zeigler, public relations manager for Diamond of California, said the Stockton, Calif.-based company has been active ever since incorporating the health claim onto the back of packages. The claim, which currently is on 10 of the company’s best-selling items, will be on all items by the end of the year as Diamond phases in new packaging, Ms. Zeigler said. In addition to the health claim on the back of the walnut bags, the front of the packaging contains an omega-3 flag.

"We have governmental validation with the health claim," Ms. Zeigler said.

She pointed out that the claim appears to be working its way into a consumer lifestyle change. According to a study by the Walnut Marketing Board, 27% of consumers surveyed late this past year said they bought walnuts more often than in the past, citing health, nutrition and convenience as the top three reasons for increased intake.

As a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to reduce disability and death from cardiovascular diseases and stroke, the American Heart Association is often linked to product claims. While the A.H.A. does not comment on specific health claims, the association through its Federal Public Policy Agenda web site said it supports public policies to:

• Improve the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act’s provisions relating to food products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and the corresponding regulations promulgated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

• Support educational efforts based on A.H.A. guidelines to ensure hearthealthy meals, particularly for children and minorities.

• Ensure that the F.T.C. establishes standards for nutrition advertising consistent with accurate and truthful labeling of food products under the F.D.A. and the U.S.D.A.

• Expand and support the federal and state governments’ roles in nutrition education (with particular emphasis on preventing obesity by controlling caloric intake) through such agencies as the F.D.A., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S.D.A., the National Institutes of Health and state departments involved in health and education.

•Support and encourage federal and state food assistance programs, including school meals programs, to follow the U.S. dietary guidelines.

•Support establishing federal standards to ensure that dietary supplements are safe and adequately labeled.

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