Page 2 of 3   <       >

Pom Wonderful Heavily Promotes Pomegranate Juice. But are Its Benefits Clear?

Pom Wonderful says it grows all its own fruit and presses it in a proprietary way that, it says, maximally preserves the antioxidant compounds. Further, all the scientific research has been done on its juice, not other brands.

"Because so many consumers drink pomegranate juice for its promising health benefits, we would not want these other brands making FDA-certified health claims on inferior or adulterated pomegranate juice," Six said.

Currently, the FDA recognizes 17 specific health claims, each linking a food or dietary ingredient to a disease or "health-related condition." Twelve were authorized through a process in which the agency evaluates the evidence for a food's reputed health effects. The other five came into play as part of the FDA Modernization Act of 1997, which permits claims "based on an authoritative statement of a scientific body of the U.S. government or the National Academy of Sciences."

What a company can say under a health claim is rigidly demarcated, and it doesn't include such Madison Avenue flourishes as "Cheat death."

For example, if a company wants to promote a calcium-containing food as being useful in preventing osteoporosis, the FDA allows this specific claim language: "Adequate calcium as part of a healthful diet, along with physical activity, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis in later life."

Companies can also promote a food by saying what it does on a physiological level, without mentioning a specific disease. These so-called structure/function claims allow companies to make statements such as "calcium builds strong bones" or "fiber maintains bowel regularity." Structure/function claims don't need to be preapproved by the FDA, but companies "should be able to substantiate any claims made about the product," said Barbara Schneeman, director of the agency's office of nutrition, labeling and dietary supplements.

For food companies wishing to market healthfulness through nutrient content claims, there are strict rules about how, for example, a cereal can get a label of "high-fiber" or a soup the designation "low in sodium."

Exactly where the FDA's interest in "labeling" ends and the FTC's interest in "advertising" begins is somewhat fuzzy.

The FDA, for example, can look at a company's advertising, Web sites and printed materials -- and not just the label on the bottle or box -- to determine the "intended use" of a product. The FTC doesn't clear advertisements in advance, but, similar to the FDA, it requires that "any company that advertises a health benefit have science to back it up," said Heather Hippsley, assistant director of the FTC's division of advertising practices.

The dozens of studies funded by Pom Wonderful have been done in numerous laboratories in the United States and Israel. The most active researcher is Michael Aviram, a biochemist on the Technion Faculty of Medicine in Haifa, Israel, who has co-authored 31 pomegranate-related papers since 1999. In an e-mail exchange, he said that Pom Wonderful pays only for research, not for advocacy, and that he has no ownership interest in the company.

Here is a sample of the company-sponsored research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals:

<       2        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company