A snack that prevents heart disease. A drink that bolsters the immune system. A supplement that burns off pounds. Is all of this stuff true? Is any of it true? What's behind claims like these?
In recent years, dozens of companies have gotten heat from government watchdog agencies because of inflated or unsupported claims of health benefits. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission sued POM Wonderful, accusing the company of deceptively advertising its pomegranate juice and POMx supplements. The company's claims of "super health powers" capable of treating or preventing prostate cancer and other conditions are "false and unsubstantiated," according to the FTC. Days later, the Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to three mouthwash makers that had been touting their products for prevention of gum disease, although no such benefit had been proven in studies.
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"We're all looking for ways to be healthier, and that makes us easy prey to slick marketing campaigns," says George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "These campaigns identify buzz words that encourage us to try the product. Words that imply improvement in performance, endurance, or overall health do influence consumers' purchasing habits."
That's where the FTC comes in, says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a research fellow with the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Part of its mission is to protect consumers by identifying false advertising and other questionable practices. "We can't all be experts," says Hobbs. "Government regulation of food advertising and labeling helps us by minimizing the extent that false or misleading information causes us to waste our money—or harms our health."
Products cannot make health-related claims that the FDA has not approved. Using marketing language permitted only for FDA-approved drugs violates the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act—as the FTC charged in the POM Wonderful case.
Marketing claims carry extra weight when they come from iconic brands like Coca-Cola. "Source credibility is a really critical factor," says Douglas Evans, director of the Public Health Communications and Marketing Program at George Washington University. "Well-known brand names that promote new products receive more credence than newcomers that people don't know about." Here's a roundup of notable marketing that has drawn the ire of consumer advocates:
POM Wonderful 100% Pomegranate juice and POMx supplements. POM ads say the juice decreases arterial plaque, promotes healthy blood vessels, and treats and reduces the risk of prostate cancer—claims the agency says aren't demonstrated by studies the company cites as evidence. Many of them were funded by the company and others were too small to be reliable or weren't conducted scientifically, according to the FTC. "Any consumer who sees POM Wonderful products as a silver bullet against disease has been misled," David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. On its website, POM Wonderful says it "fundamentally disagrees" with the FTC's accusations, and has spent more than $34 million on scientific research that supports its products health benefits.
Latisse. Last year, the FDA sent a warning letter to Allergan for promoting Latisse, a prescription medication approved for thickening eyelashes, based on misleading claims while glossing over potential risks. The original marketing campaign featured actress Brooke Shields with luscious lashes but did not mention the drug's possible side effects, which can include promotion of hair growth outside the treatment area, such as around the eye; itchy or red eyes; permanently darker eye color, and bacterial infections that could lead to blindness. The FDA ordered the company to correct its promotional materials. The Latisse website now includes a section detailing safety concerns.
Vitaminwater. In July, a federal judge upheld a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group, accusing the Coca-Cola Co. of making deceptive, unsubstantiated claims. Health-related buzz words like "defense," "rescue," "energy," and "endurance," got Coca-Cola in trouble, along with claims that Vitaminwater could reduce the risk of chronic disease, promote healthy joints, and bolster the immune system. The judge noted that Vitaminwater's most visible front labels only mention some of its ingredients while excluding others that are more prominent—like sugar. That labeling, coupled with the high-recognition brand name, could "reinforce a consumer's mistaken belief that the product is comprised of only vitamins and water," the judge concluded. The case is slated to go to trial.
Nestlé BOOST Kid Essentials. Between 2008 and 2009, Nestlé HealthCare Nutrition TV and print ads claimed that BOOST Kid Essentials, a children's drink, strengthened the immune system, prevented upper respiratory tract infections, protected against colds and flu, and reduced absences from daycare or school. Those claims, the FTC said, did not withstand scientific scrutiny. In July, Nestlé agreed to no longer promote the product in such ways.
Airborne. The popular supplement, a combination of vitamins, antioxidants, and herbal extracts, was once touted as a way to prevent and cure colds. But in 2006, ABC News revealed it was only tested in one clinical trial, conducted by two people lacking scientific or medical training. The FTC charged the company with deceptive advertising and making unproven claims, and in 2008, Airborne Health paid a fine of $30 million to settle the case. That same year, CSPI also settled a class-action lawsuit against Airborne that had been filed in 2006. The settlement was for $23.3 million in refunds to consumers. "Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed," CSPI senior nutritionist David Schardt said in a statement released in 2008 by the group.
Enviga. Both Coca-Cola and Nestlé came under fire in 2007 for claiming that this green tea-flavored soft drink has "negative calories" and promotes weight loss. Each 12-ounce can was said to burn up to 100 calories, due largely to its high caffeine content. CSPI sued Coca-Cola and Nestlé, which jointly manufacture and market the product, and Connecticut's attorney general launched an investigation into the its purported calorie-burning properties. After reaching a settlement in 2009, Coca-Cola agreed to stop making overt weight loss claims. The Enviga website now states that the drink is not a guaranteed weight loss solution and that diet and exercise are important, too. The calorie-burning claims, however, remain.
Gerber fruit juice snacks. For years, Gerber promoted its "fruit juice snacks" (now called "juice treats") with images of oranges, cherries, and strawberries, implying that the gummies were made from real fruit. The U.S. Court of Appeals last year ruled that such marketing was deceptive, since the product's leading ingredients were—and still are—high-fructose corn syrup and sugar. Consumers should not be "expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box," stated the court.