“Qualified Health Claims” Are Anything But Qualified

7 Nov

In our last post about health halos surrounding food marketing, we discussed structure/function claims. This post, we’re going to talk about “qualified health claims.” The word qualified makes the phrase sound good, but what it actually means is that the claims are qualified by a statement following the claim that says the basis for the health claim is uncertain. There is specific wording that the FDA allows for these qualified health claims (QHC). And example from the CSPI “Food Labeling Chaos” report follows:

“Very limited and preliminary scientific research suggests that eating one-half cup of tomatoes and/or tomato sauce a week may reduce the risk of prostate cancer. FDA concludes that there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim.”

Obviously this doesn’t seem like something that would be very persuading on a package, so food companies often only use the positive part of the approved wording. “May reduce the risk of prostate cancer” sounds pretty good. Some companies choose to print the entire claim in small print somewhere and then use the positive wording to catch attention in other areas. Some companies change the QHC’s completely. And some just use the name of a nutrient on the packaging which no claim at all.

For example!

You have probably tried or heard of Kashi brand foods. They have a line of instant oatmeal called Heart to Heart. On the package, they indicate the presence of green tea in the oatmeal and go on to say that it supports healthy arteries. There is an approved qualified health claim for green tea, but it is for cancer, not heart disease. Many people have heard in the news or other media that green tea is good for you for various reasons, so the food company catches your attention by telling you that green tea is included in their product and then they change the QHC completely, from cancer to heart disease!

As with the structure/function claims, there are also no nutritional standards for these claims. The QHC’s can be used and the product may be full of fat and sugar and only contain trace quantities of the supposed beneficial nutrient.

How do companies get away with twisting QHC wording like this? The FDA states that it will not take enforcement action against health claims that fail to meet “significant scientific agreement”. And the Federal Trade Commission does not have a procedure for reviewing advertising claims before they are made. Therefore, they can only be stopped after the claims have been made and “significant scientific agreement” has been found.

The use of qualified health claims in marketing make it very hard for you and I to determine what is true and what isn’t. Be critical while doing your grocery shopping and read labels carefully. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As you look through your fridge and pantry, do you spot any products with qualified health claims or structure/function claims?

For the full CSPI report: http://cspinet.org/new/pdf/food_labeling_chaos_report.pdf

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