Part of the US Federal Trade Commission’s responsibility is to protect America’s consumers from fraudulent “miracle” health claims. This week, as part of a settlement with the FTC, Nestle, the world’s largest food and nutrition company, has agreed to drop “deceptive” health claims it made in advertisements for its “BOOST Kid Essentials” beverage.
The FTC stressed that their complaint against Nestlé "was not a finding or ruling that the respondent has actually violated the law", and that the company's agreement to settle does not constitute an admission of such and they did not have to pay a fine.
The ads, which appeared on television, in newspapers, magazines and other print media, claimed that BOOST Kid Essentials “prevents upper respiratory tract infections in children, protects against cold and flu by strengthening the immune system, and reduces absences from daycare or school due to illness.”
David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said that the commission is dedicated to stopping deceptive advertising.
Karen Mandel, staff lawyer for the trade commission agrees. “Food companies are marketing more of what they call functional foods. If the claims are not substantiated, that’s what we’re looking for, to make sure the claims are truthful.”
Functional foods are those with added nutrients that companies claim can bring health benefits to those who eat or drink them.
Consumers spend billions of dollars each year on unproven, fraudulently marketed health-related products. Officials at the FTC say that health fraud promoters often target people who have serious conditions for which there are no cures, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, HIV and AIDS, and arthritis. Last year’s Nestle ad was timed with the H1N1 flu epidemic.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates health claims and federal law allows certain claims to be used on food and dietary supplements, but only if they show a strong link between the disease state and the nutrient based on scientific evidence. Two examples of approved claims include “The vitamin folic acid may reduce the risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancies” and “Calcium may reduce the risk of the bone disease osteoporosis.”
The FTC and the FDA offer this advice to consumers on how to spot false claims:
• Statements that the product is a quick and effective cure-all or diagnostic tool for a wide variety of ailments. For example: "Extremely beneficial in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, infections, prostate problems, ulcers, cancer, heart trouble, hardening of the arteries and more."
• Statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases. For example: "shrinks tumors" or "cures impotency."
• Promotions that use words like "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "exclusive product," "secret ingredient" or "ancient remedy." For example: "A revolutionary innovation formulated by using proven principles of natural health-based medical science."
• Text that uses impressive-sounding terms like these for a weight-loss product: "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis."
• Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results. For example: "My husband has Alzheimer['s disease]. He began eating a teaspoonful of this product each day. And now in just 22 days he mowed the grass, cleaned out the garage, weeded the flower beds and we take our morning walk again."
• Limited availability and advance payment requirements. For example: "Hurry. This offer will not last. Send us a check now to reserve your supply."
• Promises of no-risk "money-back guarantees." For example: "If after 30 days you have not lost at least 4 pounds each week, your uncashed check will be returned to you."