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‘Nutritious’ claims need to be taken with a pinch of salt

by Philip Brasor

During a recent visit to the United States, I was impressed by several advertising campaigns. The American Beverage Association (ABA) is running a series of spots that alternatingly complain of what it deems the over-regulation of soft drinks and promote the efforts of member manufacturers to make their products less conspicuously unhealthy, the idea being that consumers know what they want better than politicians or bureaucrats do. In a similar vein, I saw many commercials for class action suits by lawyers groups soliciting viewers who may have suffered adverse effects from specific drugs or medical treatments. Suing hospitals and pharmaceutical companies is big business.

Though not as big a business as the pharmaceuticals themselves. For years I’ve marveled at the way drugs are peddled over the air in the U.S. The commercials are visually anodyne and verbally disconcerting, showing older people, usually couples, enjoying a sunset walk on the beach or laughing over a meal while the soft-spoken narrator enumerates in the frankest terms the horrific side effects that could attend the use of this particular prescription medication. As a friend of mine once pointed out, if you just listen to these ads with your eyes closed there is no way you would ever take these drugs, but the makers have to provide this aural fine print because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires it.

Since I only see these ads once in a while during concentrated visits, the cognitive dissonance is marked, especially when they are followed by commercials for rich fast foods or snacks that clearly are not good for you in the portions depicted and the frequency implied. It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to conclude that the diet this advertising approach sells is directly related to some of the health issues the drugs were formulated to address.

Most Americans don’t feel that conundrum because they’ve grown up with it and the FDA has made sure that no one gets the idea it will allow health-related marketers to get away with fooling you. You’re the only one who has the right to do that. It’s why the ABA ads are probably effective: I know this stuff is bad for me, but what I put in my body is my affair.

Japan is still working this problem out, and last week there was some discussion in the media about health foods and pharmaceuticals in relation to the “third arrow” of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s scheme to relax regulations for the purpose of stimulating the economy. The Asahi Shimbun ran an article about the findings of a health food-related conference on “regulation reform,” whose goal is to clarify labeling for health foods and dietary supplements.

Presently there are two health-related labels. One is Tokuho, short for tokutei hoken-yo shokuhin (food for specified health use), which manufacturers can apply to their products with the approval of the Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA). The other is eiyo kino shokuhin, or “nutritious foods,” which can be designated as such if they contain any of 17 specified nutrients, but no government approval is required. Over the years, consumer groups have questioned these labels and what they purport to indicate.

As it stands, Tokuho and, more significantly, the ads for products that carry the label overemphasize “effectiveness” to the point of being misleading. For instance, consumer groups have complained to the CAA that an ad for Kirin Mets Cola, which carries the Tokuho designation, shows a famous cartoon boxer, Ashita no Joe, eating fatty foods and drinking Mets Cola, thus suggesting that the ill effects of the junk food would be counteracted by the soft drink.

The problem is administrative in nature. The labels are based on a priori standards, not empirical ones. The effectiveness of the nutrients in Eiyo Kino Shokuhin is assumed because no actual testing is carried out. The regulation reform conference has recommended that the government develop an evaluation methodology for a “third labeling system” that would better inform consumers of “how a product actually works.”

Some experts believe that outside parties should be brought in to gauge the effectiveness of a given product and then approve its designation as a health food, but these designations are and will continue to be determined from a consumer standpoint rather than as a health issue. With regard to Tokuho, the CAA’s basic mission is to protect consumer interests, not discourage sales, and that seems to be the main idea behind this proposed third label, too.

As the chairman of the Japan Health and Nutrition Food Association told the Asahi, Japan’s health food market is currently about ¥2 trillion, but “if you consider how big it is in the U.S.,” it could easily grow to ¥5 trillion. The industry would prefer Japan follow America’s example. The FDA does not require makers to prove effectiveness; It only says that they have to indicate clearly that whatever claims they make have not been officially verified if that’s the case. This policy compels consumers to decide for themselves if the claim has credibility.

It certainly doesn’t guarantee there won’t be problems. In 2008, the FDA received 6,307 reports of ill effects from health foods, 1,800 of which involved hospitalizations and 92 of them death. The furthest the Japanese authorities go in this direction is to insist that the Tokuho designation has nothing to do with medicine.

In fact, the CAA has admitted that consumers mistakenly think it means the product “helps a person become healthy.” That’s a misunderstanding companies can take to the bank. Several weeks ago Coca-Cola Japan was cited by the CAA for featuring the word “Tokuho” in big katakana characters in ads for its Canada Dry Ginger Ale Fiber 8000. In smaller characters, it was clear that “tokuho” stood for “special announcement,” not “special health,” but who reads the fine print?