Editorial - Food claims plan: benefits plus risk

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In commenting on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration plan to create a ranking system for health claims, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Tim Muris said, "We are pleased the FDA is instituting a process to inform consumers better about the role particular foods can play in a healthy diet." Agreed-providing the new system aids consumers rather than simply worsening an already deafening cacophony of health claims.

The FDA plan calls for labeling foods with a "grading system" (A through D) based on the level of scientific evidence behind the claim. A product containing calcium would qualify for a grade of "A" because there is sufficient scientific evidence, in FDA's view, to claim that calcium helps prevent osteoporosis. Less-proven claims would receive lower grades.

The plan appears well-intended, and the FDA's stated goal of curbing the obesity epidemic laudable. However, the sliding-scale process runs a strong risk of confusing consumers even more. It could also allow a marketer to put a claim on labels even though the FDA assigns it a "D," signifying there is little scientific evidence behind it.

The FDA says it's looking into a study to explore consumers' ability to "understand the different levels of science supporting qualified claims." The answer seems obvious. As the level of noise-and lawsuits-rises about fatty foods and obesity, sorting out the facts gets harder and harder for consumers. Hardly a day goes by without a news report on the latest "good" or "bad" food. Consider the latest diet culprit: Trans fats.

The urge to push foods as illness fighters dates to the late `80s as marketers of products containing ingredients from oat bran to omega oil trumpeted the healthfulness of products carrying such subtle names as Heartwise. But one lesson learned is that information overload can result in a backlash with consumers. As the FDA goes ahead, that's food for thought.

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