Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Saturday, April 03, 2004


I'm not sure what to make of this just yet:

For the first time, the Food and Drug Administration has formally allowed producers of a food to advertise health claims that are based on promising, but not conclusive, scientific testing.

The new label approved for whole and chopped walnuts will read: "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."

The inevitable "he said/he said" part of the article doesn't take us very far. Predictably, the FDA defends their own decision:

Lester M. Crawford, acting FDA commissioner, said the "qualified" health claims will allow consumers to learn about possible health and nutrition benefits from foods as the science unfolds.

"By putting credible, science-based information in the hands of consumers, FDA hopes to foster competition based on the real nutritional values of the foods, rather than on portion size or bogus and unreliable claims," Crawford said.

Just as predictably, the CSPI is out front asking questions:

"Consumers don't want wishy-washy health advice from the federal government," said Bruce Silverglade of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which along with the consumer watchdog Public Citizen sued the FDA to stop the program. "Putting out shaky scientific advice goes against 100 years of public health tradition."

As usual, neither side quite gets it. The first question, really, is how will the companies actually use these claims in the advertising and marketing of their products? Will they boldface the keywords -- "reduce," "risk," "heart disease" -- and then bury the qualifications in fine print? And will the FDA actually call them on it, if they do? We don't really know yet.

And how much confidence should we have in government officials who refer to "science-based" information. That sounds suspiciously like the standard for made-for-TV movies: "based on a true story." Inspired by evidence-related program activities. On the other hand, at least the government is being honest enough to call it a "qualified" claim about "unfolding" evidence. Would that the Bush administration were half as honest about some of its assertions.

The CSPI, for its part, should be honest enough to recognize that "shaky scientific information" is already out there, and that the government, in this instance, performs a useful function by evaluating the claims -- and stamping them as merely "promising, but not conclusive."

Of course, I'm really just thinking out loud here. Only time will tell where all of this leads. I have a feeling, though, that people who buy walnuts do so simply because they like them. The shred of good health news, however tenuous, just rationalizes the purchase.


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