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Let’s Ask Marion: “Enhanced” Fruit Juice—A No-Brainer?
Submitted by KAT on Tue, 01/08/2008 - 10:18am.
Kat: As you’ve already noted, Coca-Cola, the parent company of Minute Maid, is pouring a gazillion dollars—well, hundreds of thousands, for sure--into an ad campaign for two new juice beverages, taking out splashy full-color, full-page ads in the New York Times to tout the supposed health benefits of these “enhanced” fruit drinks.
The promotion for Minute Maid’s “pomegranate blueberry” blend is an especially brazen case of health claim-chutzpah and “nutritionism” run amok. A banner shouts “TASTES GREAT and helps nourish your brain and body with 5 key nutrients,” a message reinforced by the slogan on the bottle itself, “HELP NOURISH YOUR BRAIN.”
OK, first of all, as your sleuthing determined, the two primary ingredients in this beverage are not blueberry and pomegranate, but apple and grape juices—much cheaper, but less trendy. And not so high in antioxidants.
The allegedly brain-boosting ingredient that provides the omega-3’s is a seaweedy-sounding substance called algal oil. Is this the new snake oil? Should the FDA allow Coca-Cola to dupe gullible consumers into thinking that these juices are some kind of life-enhancing elixir?
Dr. Nestle: Algal oil is just that; fats extracted from seaweed. The drinks have a tiny amount. If you want omega-3s, eat green vegetables or fish. But I was happy to see that Congress has now told the FDA to put a moratorium on approving any more qualified health claims—the ones that have so little science behind them that they come with a huge disclaimer (see the absurd list on the FDA's qualified health claims page).
But faux pomegranate-blueberry juice ads, in glorious color or not, are not about the FDA. The FDA does food labels. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does advertisements. As I discuss in Food Politics, the FTC works under a different set of rules for advertising than the FDA does for food labels. The FDA is supposed to protect public health and safety and is expected to have some science behind its decisions. In sharp contrast, the FTC is supposed to be protecting business and science is not much of an issue. The FTC goes by “freedom of commercial speech.” In the eyes of the FTC, Coca-Cola is exercising its constitutional right to free speech when it says that drinking this particular fruit-flavored liquid candy will “nourish your brain” (Of course it does; the brain runs on sugar) and, by implication, make you smarter (No comment, particularly if you fall for this ad).
In theory, the FTC is supposed to follow FDA guidelines for health claims and it sometimes acts quietly to get companies making weakly supported claims to cease and desist. In Food Politics, I show a Heinz ketchup ad claiming that this product prevents cancer (on the grounds that tomatoes contain lycopenes). Because the science isn’t all that convincing, this ad clearly violated FDA rules. The FTC made sure Heinz didn’t run the ad again. The Coca-Cola ads have been running for days now so I’m guessing the FTC isn’t up for taking on a company that large and powerful at this stage of the election cycle. Yes, the election cycle. All of this is one more reason why who gets elected is important. Support your candidate!
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