Kraft’s Crystal Light Immunity Berry Pomegranate drink falsely claims that its vitamins A, C, and E will help “maintain a healthy immune system,” charges the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit nutrition and food safety watchdog group today urged the Food and Drug Administration to crack down on that and other deceptive “structure/function” claims increasingly appearing on food labels.
When companies claim their products will “maintain a healthy immune system,” consumers believe this means those products will help ward off disease. But while vitamins A, C, and E are important for the functioning of just about every system in the human body, there’s little evidence to suggest that drinking Crystal Light will have any impact on the average person’s immune system.
Consider vitamin A. There is no consistent evidence that supplementing with A is beneficial for the immune function of adults, and it might even worsen respiratory illnesses among children, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. And the Crystal Light drink has only 500 IU-just a small fraction of what one would find in a typical multivitamin. (In fact, says CSPI, there’s not much berry or pomegranate in this drink either; less than 2 percent of it is unspecified “natural flavor,” and the rest is water, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and food dyes.)
Another Kraft product, Fruit2O Immunity Nutrient Enhanced Water Beverage, also bears a bogus “help maintain a healthy immune system” claim. (Its Berry Pomegranate flavor is just as bereft of berries and pomegranates as Crystal Light as well.) “Food manufacturers know that they can get away with this kind of consumer deception because the Bush FDA is letting the industry play by many of the same loosely-goosey rules followed by dietary supplement manufacturers,” says CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade. “The result is that the deception that is commonplace on dietary supplement labels has now spread to the much larger food industry.”
Even some foods that are perfectly healthy in their own right-bags of frozen fruit or vegetables-bear silly label claims touting magical immunity-boosting properties. For instance, Green Giant Immunity Boost, a General Mills product, consists of frozen broccoli, carrots, pepper strips, and seasoning. While it’s a perfectly healthful food, there is no evidence to support the claim that the product “supports a healthy immune system,” or provides the promised “immunity boost.” In an informal survey of 1,000 health-oriented consumers conducted by CSPI, 49 percent thought this product would help prevent colds and the flu.
The makers of Green Giant claim this product boosts immunity but with no scientific evidence to prove it. Photo credit: Wendi Hausfeld.
Dole’s Wildly Nutritious Tropical Fruit-frozen sliced pineapple, mango, kiwi fruit, papaya, and strawberries-is another decent food. But the marketing copy on the label makes it sound like nothing short of a medical miracle, whose vitamins variously maintain, support, or even enhance “white blood cell function” and the cells lining the “airway, urinary, and digestive tracts,” and can “protect the body against viruses and bacteria.”
“Sometimes a pineapple is just a pineapple,” said CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt. “Consumers should eat their fruits and vegetables, by all means. But save your money by watching out for weasel words like ‘support,’ ‘maintain,’ or ‘enhance,’ which often imply that a specific brand name food can prevent disease.”
Express disease prevention claims on food labels must be approved by the FDA prior to marketing. But food companies do not need the FDA’s permission to claim that various nutrients allegedly play in the normal structure or functioning of the body. Thus, while the makers of Welch’s Fiber 100% Grape Juice may not claim that that product-with its added fiber-cures chronic constipation or relieves irritable bowel syndrome, they can state that it “support[s] a healthy digestive system.” But in this case, the fiber comes from maltodextrin, not fruit, and there’s no evidence that the amount of maltodextrin in the grape juice has any effect on digestion.
In a formal complaint filed today with the FDA, CSPI says the agency should stop the bogus claims and set new rules for food companies requiring them to base future claims on solid scientific evidence and make only FDA-approved claims. CSPI’s complaint to the FDA also criticized claims that products supposedly “help nourish your brain” (Minute Maid Enhanced Juice Blend Omega-3 DHA Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices), “keep your digestive system healthy” (Sunsweet PlumSmart for Digestive Health Plum Juice Extra with Fiber), and “protect cartilage and joints” (Minute Maid Enhanced Juice Active 750 mg Glucosamine HCL).
Several prominent researchers with expertise in nutrition and immunity, David C. Nieman, John D. Potter, and Neli Ulrich, also today urged FDA to suspend its approval of immunity-related structure/function claims on food labels.
“Many, if not most, consumers associate the immune system with protection from disease,” the researchers wrote. “There is little or no evidence that these products can provide that protection.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, DC, that focuses on nutrition, food safety, and pro-health alcohol policies. CSPI is supported by the 900,000 U.S. and Canadian subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and by foundation grants.