Welcome to the first article in our new series, “The Healthy Skeptic”.
The idea is to probe health and nutrition claims … and try to separate the real from the ridiculous.
We’ll skip the silly but harmless to focus on genuinely harmful myths and half-truths … regardless of source or presumed sincerity.
Our first story in the series considers the “creative” marketing of fruity beverages
As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Cocoa Cola’s creative juice label
A company called POM Wonderful makes pomegranate juice, supplements and concentrated liquid.
And they’ve been very upset that the Coca Cola Company sells a beverage labeled “Pomegranate Blueberry Juice” (under its Minute Maid brand).
The two most prominent pieces of text on the label are “100% juice” and “Pomegranate Blueberry,” followed in much smaller type by “Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.”
The label shows a pomegranate and blueberries in front of an apple and grapes, and the juice is dyed dark purple. In fact, “Pomegranate Blueberry,” is 99.4 percent apple juice and contains only tiny traces of pomegranate juice (0.3 percent) and blueberry juice (0.2 percent).
How is this legal? Under U.S. FDA regulations companies can name blended juice drinks after their (allegedly) dominant flavors, regardless the actual proportion of various juices in the beverage.
POM Wonderful, which sells pomegranate juice, is suing Cocoa Cola for false advertising under the Lanham Act, which allows a company to sue competitors that misrepresent the nature of their products.
The truth about “antioxidants” in plant foods
The polyphenol and carotenoid compounds found in whole plant foods are commonly called “antioxidants” because they behave that way in test tube experiments.
But in general, these health allies do not exert direct antioxidant effects in the body… at least not to a very substantial extent.
Instead, polyphenols appear to exert strong indirect effects on oxidation and inflammation via so-called “nutrigenomic” effects on gene switches (e.g., transcription factors) in our cells.
Polyphenols’ nutrigenomic effects tend to moderate inflammation and stimulate the body’s own antioxidant network … which includes enzymes, lipoic acid, CoQ10, melatonin, and vitamins C and E.
The richest known food source of polyphenols – in very rough order of abundance – are raw (non-alkalized / non-“Dutched”) cocoa, berries, plums, prunes, coffee, tea, extra virgin olive oil, beans, and whole grains.
Highly beneficial procyanidin-type polyphenols abound in cocoa, dark-hued berries – e.g., blackberries, blueberries açaí berries – grapes, red wine, and tea. Comparably beneficial anthocyanin-type polyphenols abound in cherries and most berries.
Coffee is particularly rich in a class of polyphenols called chlorogenic acids, which appear to confer unusually strong and broad nutrigenomic benefits.
Tea and cocoa are the richest sources of flavanol-type polyphenols, which are associated with artery health and appear to be especially powerful nutrigenomic allies.
Extra virgin olive oil is uniquely rich in hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, oleocanthal, and other tyrosol esters … a class of polyphenols with clinically documented vascular and brain benefits.
As POM’s lawyer said during recent oral arguments before the Supreme Court, “… the total amount of blueberry and pomegranate juice in this product can be dispensed with a single eyedropper. It amounts to a teaspoon in a half gallon.”
(By the way, apple juice may be just as healthful or more than pomegranate juice see “Apple Juice May Guard Against Alzheimer’s”.)
The legal question posed to the Supreme Court is important to consumers seeking accurate information on labels and in ads.
But it seems pretty hypocritical for POM Wonderful to sue over Coke over misleading claims.
POM pot calls Coke kettle black
As you probably know, POM Wonderful has been making extravagant claims for the power of pomegranates … and raking in millions as a result.
Pomegranate flesh is likely very healthful, thanks largely to its “antioxidant” polyphenol compounds. (Why do we put “antioxidant” in quotes? See our sidebar, “The truth about ‘antioxidants’ in plant foods”.)
Of course, similarly beneficial antioxidants abound in other colorful fruits such as berries, coffee beans, and cacao pods … whose seeds (nibs) are used to make cocoa powder and chocolate.
In recent years, POM Wonderful has been sued –successfully – by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the extravagant claims in its ads.
Those ads assert or imply that its pomegranate products can treat, prevent and cure heart disease, prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction.
Last month, a federal appeals court hinted that it would uphold the FTC's decision that many of POM Wonderful’s advertising claims were deceptive or misleading, hence illegal.
Consumers bear some responsibility
In the words of Ben Goldacre, epidemiologist and author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma:
“We want pills to solve complex social problems like school performance. We want berries to stop us from dying and to delineate the difference between us and the lumpen peasants around us.”
“We want nice simple stories that make sense of the world, and if you make us think about anything more complicated, we will open our mouths, let out a bubble or two, and float off – bored and entirely unfazed – to huddle at the other end of our shiny little fish bowl eating goji berries.”
He’s using goji berries as a symbol of faddish “super foods” like mangosteen or acai, and cure-all claims for niche diets.
Some foods – such as whole plant foods and fatty fish – rank especially high on the healthful list, but they become even more beneficial as parts of a widely varied diet featuring whole, unrefined natural foods.
Good information is fairly easy to find online … so it’s hard to muster much sympathy for consumers who fall for marketing hype and celebrities’ endorsements.
But not everyone has the same educational background to do that sorting, and it takes time for even the best-informed folks to sift through conflicting claims and determine which sources are credible.
And not all questions have clear answers, with expert researchers often disagreeing about the quality and meaning of scientific evidence … which is surprisingly limited with regard to some important issues.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants
In the end, we agree with the thesis presented by Michael Pollan in his brief manifesto, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.
In that book, he says everything important about food and health can be summed up in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.
By “Eat food”, he means real food – vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, fish, and meat.
These seven rank high among his 64 rules:
Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store.
Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot.
It is not just what you eat but how you eat. Always leave the table a little hungry.
Families should eat together around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times.
Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline.