Volume 9  Number 1  April 3, 2012
Second Opinions

Nourishing Medical Endorsements

"It is pretty obvious that the debasement of the human mind caused by a constant flow of fraudulent advertising is no trivial thing. There is more than one way to conquer a country."

Raymond Chandler

"That's the kind of ad I like, facts, facts, facts."

Samuel Goldwyn

An endorsement, like advertising, must offer a promise to the reader of a believable benefit. But Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a widely published Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, has a rule about food products bearing health claims: "Don't buy them." She writes that the box of vitamin-enriched immunity-boosting Cocoa Krispies may be a cereal loaded with antioxidants, but current research is inconclusive about the health benefits of these compounds, which are predominantly found in fruits and vegetables. "They have been shown to protect cells against deterioration, but it's unclear if consuming them in a supplement form is effective, and some research has shown that consuming excessive amounts of Vitamin E, in particular, can be harmful."

A Peek at the Medical Endorsement Industry

Claims like the above from our most respected companies, Kellogg, Diamond, Nestle, Gortons, ConAgra — the list goes on — are bolstered by endorsements from highly respected professional organizations. We owe grateful thanks to CSPI The Center for Science in the Public Interest for pulling the plug on the highly esteemed American Heart Association (AHA) and many others. For the fiscal years from 03-04 to 06-07, AHA reports receiving over $30 million from pharmaceutical and medical device companies and also reports an additional $28 million in committed revenues for future fiscal years well beyond 2008.

The AHA offers food manufacturers a food certification program, labeling with the Association's latest revision of Healthy Heart, the "Heart-Check Mark," foods that are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. The AHA charges companies on a per product basis $7,500 for 1-9 products, $6,750 for 10-24 products and $5,940 for 25-99 products in their first year, plus 25% or more markdowns to renew in subsequent years. CSPI estimates that in 2002, with over 630 products certified, the AHA received over $2 million from one of its food certification program. as license fees to use the "heart check mark." The American Heart Association is "expanding and improving its Heart-Check Food Certification Program to allow certification" of more foods with the healthier fats, and is also planning in 2014 to revise sodium allowances and adding "screening guidelines to limit added sugars and promote dietary fiber in certified products." By their admission, the AHA has nearly 900 products that bear the Heart-Check Mark to meet (their) criteria for saturated fat and cholesterol.

More Players in this Medical Growth Industry

Merck, manufacturer of the statin drug Zocor, is spending $400,000 to finance an American Heart Association program teaching 40,000 doctors to treat cholesterol according to guidelines. And the Florida grapefruit growers has paid the AHA $450,000 for exclusive grapefruit use of the Association's heart-healthy endorsement.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association paid $25,000 for its arrangement with the AHA to promote lean cuts of beef. For an agreement with ConAgra, the AHA received $3,500,000 for a TV program on nutrition. The endorsements and cozy licensing fees for the Cardiologists Seal of Approval go on and on. To my astonishment the American Heart Association has endorsed only Bayer aspirin. (New England Journal of Medicine) According to Kramer Laboratories, Inc. of Miami, Bayer contributes over $500,000 a year to the American Heart Association."

CSPI has also questioned the reliability of advice offered by Tufts University's "Nutrition Navigator" web site. A national nutrition-advocacy organization, the Tufts World Wide Web site evaluates other nutrition sites. "The Nutrition Navigator steers Web-surfers toward sites that support the status quo, and doesn't make that bias clear to users," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. In defense a Tufts spokesperson told CSPI that its Nutrition Navigator relies "...heavily on official dietary recommendations, reports, and regulations issued by government agencies." Appealing to official dogma, of course, is begging the question, and by that standard, ground-breaking investigative reports in the New York Times, "60 Minutes," and elsewhere would be labeled inaccurate no matter what the evidence.

The site is partially underwritten by Kraft Foods, a division of tobacco giant Phillip Morris, and markets many foods that are, according to received dietary wisdom, high in salt, fat, or sugar, including margarine, hot dogs, and cheese. Criteria for rating web sites were established by a six-person advisory committee, at least three of whose members have close ties to the food industry, including a former director of Nabisco, a trustee of two food-industry advocacy groups, and a consultant to the dairy industry.

If the Nutrition Navigator is the best that Tufts can manage, perhaps it should excise its rating business before besmirching the University's credibility. As for the AHA, of which I was once a member, perhaps they should reassess their Good Eating Seal of Approval, even though everyone else is doing it., including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Center of Nutrition Policy Promotion, (CNPP).

Thanks to another Government Agency, the FDA, however, we have a worldwide reputation for one of the most reliable food labeling policies among nations. But the FDA regulates what's in our food and requires food producers to label the contents of their products. It deals with food safety and not health labels.

Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP

Copyright 2012, Mathemedics, Inc.

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