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Bogus Health Food Claims

By Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum

One of the best ways to sell a product is to claim its great health values. The more diseases it can supposedly prevent, the more people will run to buy it. Claiming that nuts are good for the heart or that eating raisins makes one live long are difficult to refute and collecting testimonials that lend credence to these claims are not hard to come by. Claiming that certain foods lower one’s cholesterol, prevent colon cancer, or lower one’s blood pressure will always help sell the product and many a company can easily produce a study that confirms their claims even though the evidence may be very flimsy. Calling the food organic and claiming that it contains some very rare vitamins always boosts sales. Bamboozling people with nonsensical and unreliable scientific claims works wonders.

Take the myth that high-fiber cereals prevents colon cancer. It was started by a British medical missionary named Dr. Denis Burkitt who observed that poor Africans had less colon cancer than Westerners. Thereupon he theorized that this was due to the Africans’ fiber-rich diet. Based on this theory Kellogg’s placed a message on all its All Bran cereals claiming scientific evidence linking a high fiber diet with the reduction of colon cancer risk. The FDA allowed these claims to remain and ignored the study in The New England Journal of Medicine that scoffed at the findings. And so millions of consumers continue to be misled by science-fueled myths that have no basis in reality and are nothing but pseudo science. Take the study made on three people that lived to the age of one-hundred that all ate a raisin a day, or the study based on thirty people who ate a peanut a day and never suffered a heart attack or any other debilitating disease. That they exercised each day or whatever else they ate or did, wasn’t taken into account.

Recently Ben & Jerry’s introduced a new ice cream called “Organic Ben and Jerry’s” which they claim is made without pesticides or growth hormones. Perhaps they also should have claimed that it is free of arsenic! Such claims create the false and misleading impression that these dairy products are somehow different than all others since they incorrectly imply that other dairy products do contain pesticides and growth hormones.

While eating the proper foods certainly will help keep people healthy, misleading advertisements and misinformation about foods, nutrition supplements and nonprescription drugs in health magazines are widespread and often seduce the unsuspecting reader into believing their fraudulent claims. Magazines make lots of money carrying such ads and will certainly not kill the goose laying the golden eggs by publishing articles debunking them.

Since the FDA began to permit health-claims on labels – provided that there was some sort of scientific proof - fraudulent scientific studies have deceived millions. When a writer for the New York Times Magazine pointed out to the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association that its report of fish consumption reducing heart disease was dubious, the editor replied “What harm could it do?” Obviously the harm of deceiving millions of consumers into a false sense of security and scamming them out of their hard earned money doesn’t amount to much.

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