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US government aims to crack down on unsubstantiated food health claims.

US Government Aims to Crack Down On Unsubstantiated Food Health Claims

Manufacturers' messages will be carefully scrutinized for accuracy. Meanwhile, links between phyto-chemicals' health-inducing qualities of certain foods are investigated by Cancer Institute.

The din of unsubstantiated health claims and proliferation of pro-active hyperbole on food product packaging may soon be toned down by law. From the alleged cholesterol-checking attributes of oat bran to the proclaimed cancer-fighting powers of other products, Washington has said enough already.

The Secretary of Health and Human Services in February announced new regulations designed to halt the spread of disease-prevention claims. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to begin playing a stricter role in policing grocery store shelves.

Just how prolific have the health claims been? It has been estimated that up to 40% of new food products rolled out during the first six months of 1989 were marketed as being healthy to eat. And perhaps as much as one-third of the $3.6 billion spent on food advertising last year hammered home messages of physical well being associated with consuming particular products.

After being lax about such manufacturer claims during the 1980s, the White House has apparently decided that the time has come to resume holding food packers accountable for the claims they are making. Here is some of what the proposed new government regulations (Section 101.9 in the Code of Federal Regulations), which could be amended before going into effect, spell out:

"...a food that is labeled in accordance with the requirements of this section may bear a health message about the association between diet and certain serious chronic disease conditions if all of the following conditions are met:

* "The label statement is truthful and not misleading.

* "The label statement is limited to describing the value that ingestion (or reduced ingestion) of a dietary component, as part of a total dietary pattern, may have in either lowering the risk, or forestalling the premature onset, of a particular disease condition. Such a statement must be based on the totality of publicly available scientific evidence, including evidence from well-designed studies conducted in a manner that is consistent with generally-recognized scientific procedures and principles. A significant agreement must exist among qualified experts that the statement is supported by such evidence.

* "The lable statement is consistent with generally recognized medical and nutritional principles for a sound total dietary pattern.

* "The label statement is based on and consistent with the conclusions set forth in an applicable scientific summary and consumer health messages summary accepted by the Food and Drug Administration.

* "The label statement includes a reference to the applicable consumer health message summary.

* "The food is labeled in accordance with the requirements of this section."

Opposition Heard

Not surprisingly, some food interests are opposed to any enlargement of government power over the industry. Blasting the proposed rules in no uncertain terms was J.B. Codero, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association made up of manufacturers of food supplements and other products.

"This is probably the most retrogressive, anti-consumer rule put out by the government in years and will have a serious, negative health impact on Americans," he stated. "A diet revolution was begun in 1969 in this country, and what this is doing is setting that revolution back. It will discourage companies from putting out information on health and from modifying their products to be more healthy."

But Congressman Henry A. Waxman of California voiced another opinion: "In today's market, the industry has an incentive to make exaggerated and inaccurate health claims on foods. I hope that the FDA will finally begin prohibiting health claims unless the agency first finds they have a sound scientific basis."

Research Goes On

Still, government intervention notwithstanding, many consumers continue to place their faith in the health-inducing merits of certain foods. And some highly respected institutions are investing considerable resources to scientifically investigate the possibilities.

Indeed, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has set up a $20.5 million program to examine the nature of phyto-chemicals, which are minute compounds found in some common foods that are linked to cancer prevention. It will attempt to identify what are thought to be specific cancer inhibiting compounds in garlic, flax, citrus fruits, parsley and licorice root extract.

Over the next decade, Dr. Herbert Pierson, who is directing the NCI's program, reportedly plans to conduct sequential laboratory and clinical research into the preventive potential of 20 other foods and to create food products containing concentrations of phyto-chemicals.

"It's more cost effective than looking for new drugs," he assessed.

And the doctor is not discounting the possibility that folkloric recipes and cultural eating habits have tremendous impact on health. For example, research suggests definite connections between the following: the consumption of onions and the lowering of cholesterol levels among Poles; the role of chilies as pulmonary strengtheners among Mexicans; omega-3 fatty acids and a low incidence of heart disease among Eskimos; garlic eaten in northern China and low rates of cancer there.

Another researcher hot on the trail of proving a relationship between food and disease prevention is Dr. Chris Beecher, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at Chicago's University of Illinois.

"The correlation between folk medicine and phyto-chemicals is astounding," he said. "It convinces me that people's tastes are shaped at least in part by a subliminal knowledge of what keeps them alive."

According to a recent report published by The New York Times, Dr. Pierson's "designer food" is a hightech missile aimed at those same eating-for-survival instincts.

What does this mean for the frozen food industry? Plenty!

"Imagine a frozen food that can be popped into the microwave," he said. "The product is devoid of cholesterol, fortified by huge concentrations of citrus or licorice that delivers natural molecules that fortify human tissue against chronic insults.

"We could produce orange juice with the phyto-chemical content of 20 oranges or salt- and fat-free beef stroganoff with high concentrations of allium."
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Title Annotation:Frozen Foods in North America
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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