Big food companies have taken to making so many health claims about their products lately that it can be hard to tell a supermarket from a pharmacy.
Yogurts say they will improve immunity and digestion. Cereals, milk and breads with omega-3 fats claim that they’ll help kids’ brains develop and unclog grown-ups’ arteries. And then there are all those drinks that say they will give you energy, help you sleep and even protect you from the sun.
“We’re going through a revolution in food,” says Thomas Pirko, president of Bevmark consulting, whose clients include Coca-Cola and Kraft. “It’s a whole new consciousness–every product has to be adding to your health or preventing you from getting sick.”
Foods masquerading as drugs are a booming $31 billion business in the U.S. alone, according to market researcher Packaged Facts. Designer yogurts alone generate $4 billion in revenue. But a Forbes special report on this booming industry raises big concerns about how many of these claims are backed up by any evidence at all. Even as they are a big growth area for companies like General Mills, Pepsi ( PEP –news – people ), Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola.
Most of the claims “are completely unsubstantiated,” says Steven Nissen, head of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic. “Medical attention does not come from a Cheerios box.”
In Europe it is much tougher for food companies to make health claims. The European Food Safety Authority has rejected 80% of more than 900 proposed claims over the past several years because they are lacking strong evidence. But the Food and Drug Administration does not prospectively review food claims because American law says that foods are allowed to affect the “structure and function” of the body, so long as they do not actually claim to treat disease.
This leaves consumers to figure out for themselves what works and what doesn’t. It can be tough. For instance, in a newly released study of 638 children, Georgetown University researchers found that DanActive, a yogurt made by French multinational company Danone, reduced everyday infections by 19%. But it didn’t keep the kids from missing school.
But another yogurt-like product, ProBugs kefir from Lifeway Foods, utterly failed to prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea in another study by the same researchers. Lifeway told Forbes it thinks the researchers made mistakes in the study, and that it wants the to redo the study before it will pay Georgetown’s bills. But the company continues to make vague health claims for its product.
It’s not easy to tell the foods that help a little from those that may do nothing. POM Wonderful pomegranate juice cites all sorts of studies on everything from prostate health to erectile dysfunction; unless you are a scientific sophisticate who likes to read the fine print you probably wouldn’t notice that its largest study in heart patients failed.
Even omega-3 fatty acids that are added to foods can be a source of confusion. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil protects the heart and may even help brain development . But other omega-3s being put in foods have less evidence behind them–and there may be no way of telling which you are getting from the package label.
Things get even murkier when drinks are classified as nutritional supplements, not beverages. That’s how Sarpes Beverages can make claims that its DreamWater helps you sleep (it also contains a warning for pregnant women), and how Nestle ( NSRGY.PK – news –people ) can claim its Glowelle protects against sun damage based on a tiny 56-patient study. The same goes for FRS Healthy Energy, the antioxidant drink pitched by Lance Armstrong.
“It’s the marketing folks within these companies that make the decisions, not scientists,” says University of Georgia researcher Kirk Cureton, who has done studies finding that the FRS energy drink doesn’t boost performance. “When the marketing people decide what they want to say, they go and try to find some evidence to back it up.”
Some experts recommend a different strategy for health: Don’t look for sexy health claims or newfangled additives. Says University of Wisconsin cardiologist James Stein: “People should be getting nutrition from real foods, not from foods that are artificially modified to give supposed health benefits.”