Group: Some Functional Foods Dangerous

N E W   Y O R K, July 18, 2000 -- Do you think you may be enlightening your senses by drinking an iced tea supplemented with kava kava, a purported natural anti-anxiety agent?

Think again, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The Washington, D.C-based consumer group is urging the Food and Drug Administration to halt the sale of dozens of so-called functional foods that it claims are unsafe. The group also wants the FDA to order manufacturers to stop making what it says are false and misleading claims about their products. (See sidebar, below.)

Functional foods often contain supplements such as herbs or minerals and allege health claims along with the nutrient value of the food.

Common Products Targeted

The center is targeting more than 75 products, including Snapple’s “Moon” Tea Drink, which contains kava kava; Ben & Jerry’s “Tropic of Mango Smoothie,” which contains echinacea, an alleged immune booster; Arizona’s “Rx Memory Elixir,” which contains gingko biloba, a supposed cognitive enhancer; and Procter & Gamble’s “spire Energy with VitaLift Green Tea and Juice Beverage,” with guarana, which is said to have energizing qualities.

The center says kava kava has been in a factor in several arrests for driving while intoxicated; echinacea can cause allergic reactions, including asthma attacks; guarana is not deemed safe by the FDA; and that gingko biloba can be a blood thinner.

“Food companies are spiking fruit drinks, breakfast cereals and snack foods with illegal ingredients and then misleading consumers about their health benefits,” says Bruce Silverglade, the center’s director of legal affairs. “It is shameful that respected companies are selling modern day snake oil.”

Center: Firms Violate Food & Drug Law

The center alleges the companies are not abiding by federal food and drug laws by putting these chemicals into the food products. The firms are making a determination that the supplements, such as kava kava, ginseng and guarana, are safe rather than going through what is a more lengthy regulatory process of considering these substances additives, says Ilene Ringel Heller, senior staff attorney for the center.

“The companies are saying that similar substances are marketed as dietary supplements in pill form so they must be safe to add to the food products,” says Heller. Dietary supplements can be put on the market without prior FDA approval.

But Heller says, “It is unknown how much of these supplements are in the foods and what happens when they are heated and even if consumers understand the alleged health claims on the product packaging.”

“Consumers are often deceived by false claims,” says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who is asking other state attorneys general to make functional foods a top consumer-protection initiative.

“They are not told that many of the claims are not supported by valid scientific evidence. We need more vigorous FDA enforcement of current laws on label claims,” Blumenthal says.

Firms: Complaints Misguided

But Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the nation’s largest trade group representing food, beverage and consumer products, called the center’s complaints “a frenzied overreaction.” He accused it of engaging in “over-the-top dietary Puritanism in its call for product bans.”

“The Food and Drug [Administration] has sufficient authority to take enforcement actions against products it deems to be unsafe,” Sansoni says. “Mainstream food companies fully support the high standard that all claims be scientifically substantiated, truthful and not misleading and that all products be safe.

“The Center for Science in the Public Interest may not like it, but food companies have a constitutional right to make health-related information available to consumers.”

Arizona Iced Teas, of Lake Success, N.Y., also defends its products. “We stand 100 percent behind our products,” says company Vice President Francine Patton. “Our customers do, too. They love the products which have been on the market for five years. We have recieved no complaints.”

GAO Says FDA Fails in Oversight

The General Accounting Office, however, also issued a report last week criticizing FDA’s regulation of functional foods. “FDA’s efforts and laws provide limited assurances of the safety of functional foods and dietary supplements,” the report says.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, also said that the “FDA cannot effectively assess whether a functional food or dietary supplement is adversely affecting consumers’ health because, among other things, it does not investigate most reports it receives of health problems potentially caused by these products.”

The GAO called on Congress and the FDA to strengthen federal oversight of functional foods.

The FDA says it will take the center’s complaints seriously.“FDA will carefully evaluate the Center for Science in the Public’s Interest written complaints regarding the marketing of products that purport to be functional foods,” it says. “The agency will continue, as always, to work to ensure that all marketed foods comply with the standards of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so that ingredients are safe and labels are truthful and accurate.”