WASHINGTON — The food industry urged federal regulators Tuesday to allow broader health claims on energy drinks, power bars and other so-called functional foods amid criticisms from consumer groups that those claims can be misleading.
Once a niche market, the foods have grown to be a $27 billion a year business, attracting consumer giants such as Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co. and Nestle S.A. The term has been applied to everything from calcium-enhanced orange juice to energy drinks containing herbs like ginseng, ginkgo and guarana.
At a public Food and Drug Administration meeting, consumer advocacy groups criticized food industry presentations. Many companies overstate the benefits of functional foods, which usually feature extra vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements, the groups charged.
FDA officials seemed skeptical of both industry’s call to expand functional food labeling as well as consumer advocacy groups’ request for a crackdown on inflated claims.
The meeting came one day after the nonprofit watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, threatened to sue Coca-Cola and Nestle over a new drink Enviga that they are jointly marketing.
An Enviga Web site claims that the drink’s blend of green tea and caffeine burns more calories than it contains and can help drinkers maintain an ideal weight. According to a Nestle study, young people who drank three of the beverages a day burned an average of 106 calories.
‘It’s ironic that Coke, a company that has been a major promoter of weight gain, is now pretending to come to the rescue of overweight people,’ said the group’s director, Michael Jacobson.
A Coke spokesman denied Monday that the product is intended for weight loss and called the lawsuit threat a ‘meritless publicity stunt.’
As the popularity of functional foods has risen along with the claims, public interest groups argue that consumers are at risk of confusing functional foods and dietary supplements.
‘Foods and supplements are consumed for different reasons, by different consumers and in different forms,’ says Bruce Silverglade, legal director for CSPI.
The FDA has endorsed health claims for several foods, but only after government researchers verified that the products helped prevent disease. Oatmeal products, for example, can carry the FDA-approved claim ‘may reduce risk of heart disease.’
Supplements are allowed to carry labels, such as ‘boosts energy’ or ‘strengthens the immune system’ but they also must carry a disclaimer that ‘these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.’
Silverglade’s group has recommended that FDA require companies show significant scientific evidence for a product’s general health claims before being allowed to put them on a product’s label.
The General Accounting Office made a similar recommendation in 2000.
FDA officials, however, pointed out that Congress would have to pass legislation to give the agency that authority. Michael Landa, deputy director of FDA’s food and nutrition center, said the agency will decide in 2007 whether it needs to develop new regulations for functional foods.