Facebook Falacy #1–Walnuts
Hi there everybody! (Hi Dr. Nick!)
I have been busy on another blog and haven’t had the time/energy to do this one as much as I would like, but here is a quick post that is, I think, perfect. I hope to make it a regular feature.
There are always posts on facebook that have nothing to do with how someone is feeling–some of these are music videos, or web comics, or whatever else.
And sometimes they are news stories.
Some of these news stories are more, shall we say, accurate, than others. As the title suggests, this new series will cover some of those iffy, though popular, posts.
The first one covers the story “Walnuts are Drugs, Says FDA“:
Seen any walnuts in your medicine cabinet lately? According to the Food and Drug Administration, that is precisely where you should find them. Because Diamond Foods made truthful claims about the health benefits of consuming walnuts that the FDA didn’t approve, it sent the company a letter declaring, “Your walnut products are drugs” — and “new drugs” at that — and, therefore, “they may not legally be marketed … in the United States without an approved new drug application.” The agency even threatened Diamond with “seizure” if it failed to comply.
So, the FDA is saying that the walnuts from the good people at Diamond Foods are “new drugs”? Go ahead, read the article, read the warning letter from the FDA.
Now, tell me, who is calling walnuts “drugs”? Technically, nobody is. However, the numerous, specific health benefits touted by Diamond made the FDA think that Diamond was doing just that.
Much of the article is reference to an earlier article at Life Extension. They cry foul that the FDA is apparently ignoring the solid science backing Diamond’s claims that walnuts (specifically because of their high Omega-3 Fatty Acid content) are good for your health, and especially heart and cardiovascular health.
But really, it appears to be both not as bad as all that, and also worse. In the end it appears to be the result of bureaucratic legalese–semantics. As an example of what I mean, look at this FDA warning letter sent to General Mills concerning their product Cheerios. In the Cheerios letter, they chide:
Based on claims made on your product’s label, we have determined that your Cheerios® Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease. Specifically, your Cheerios® product bears the following claims ort its label:
• “you can Lower Your Cholesterol 4% in 6 weeks” ”
• “Did you know that in just 6 weeks Cheerios can reduce bad cholesterol by an average of 4 percent? Cheerios is … clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.”
These claims indicate that Cheerios® is intended for use in lowering cholesterol, and therefore in preventing, mitigating, and treating the disease hypercholesterolemia. Additionally, the claims indicate that Cheerios® is intended for use in the treatment, mitigation, and prevention of coronary heart disease through, lowering total and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Elevated levels of total and LDL cholesterol are a risk factor for coronary heart disease and can be a sign of coronary heart disease. Because of these intended uses, the product is a drug within the meaning of section 201(g)(1)(B) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321 (g)P)(B)].
There are other remarks about ‘you can say that diets rich in whole-grain foods can reduce the risk of heart disease; however according to thus and such article of regulation: “the claim must state that diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber-containing fruit, vegetable, and grain products may reduce the risk of heart disease. The claim on your website leaves out any reference to fruits and vegetables, to fiber content, and to keeping the levels of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet low.”‘
Back to the walnuts, then:
The statement suggests that the evidence supporting a relationship between walnuts and coronary heart disease is related to the omega-3 fatty acid content of walnuts. There is not sufficient evidence to identify a biologically active substance in walnuts that reduces the risk of CHD. Therefore, the above statement is an unauthorized health claim.
What You Want is What You Get
So, what are we to make of this? The Mayo Clinic has much good to say about eating nuts, and walnuts are mentioned conspicuously. And the Mayo Clinic being the top hospital in the country, surely if they’re saying good stuff about walnuts, then the FDA must know about it, too.
Something doesn’t add up.
Again, it turns out to be semantics. In the FDA’s Food Labeling Guide, Appendix D, “Qualified Health Claims”, under the heading “Nuts and Heart Disease” it says:
Scientific evidence suggests but does not prove that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts [such as name of specific nut] as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.
I added the italics to better clarify the point I’m drawing attention to. It was exactly the same thing with Cheerios.
When I went into this article/post, I was sure that Diamond Food’s health claims for walnuts were exaggerated. I mean, seriously, helping with major depression? But nope, even the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a part of the National Institutes of Health, says there are several good studies that provide a link with Omega-3 and reduced depression (and Omega-3 is very high in walnuts). And it was the mental health benefits I thought were most exaggerated! So, I was wrong. The more I looked into the “officially” affirmed health benefits of Omega-3 (with walnuts being, apparently, the best plant-source of the stuff) the more confused I became.
So if this government agency is proclaiming the health benefits of Omega-3 (and walnuts), then the FDA must know it, too. So why would they make Diamond change or remove their health claims? Because of semantics.
As if to emphasize this point, there was a Class Action suit against Diamond for that very thing–for saying that walnuts will help “prevent, mitigate, or cure” these several health issues. From what very little I know about the details of the suit, I tend to think it is possibly a case like “McDonald’s should have warned me their coffee was hot before I spilled it in my lap”. The case centered on the “unqualified health claims” that remained on the Diamond site after the FDA warning letter. Everyone wanted the money back for all the medicinal walnuts they bought in hopes that it would cure them…or whatever. True, walnuts may not actually “cure” anything, but they are widely recognized as being very healthy, so it isn’t like the people actually lost anything in eating the walnuts; except if they didn’t think the walnuts might “mitigate or cure” then they might have found an effective medicine that would. But this isn’t about the merits of the case…
But again, what you expect to find, you find. The various natural health food sites are looking for the Big Bad Government to try and take away their healthy food so that Merck and Frito Lay’s can make more money (Diamond Foods also makes Kettle Chips, so it isn’t like they’re a Health Food company being beaten up by Big Potato Chip). Thus, in the FDA’s actions, they saw just that. I came into this expecting that the health claims were all wildly exaggerated and became confused when the research proved that was not the case. The truth was much more mundane. But without actually researching I would have never seen it.
Seeing what you expect to see, instead of digging to find the (potentially) boring truth, is why Life Extensions proclaimed, “If anyone still thinks that federal agencies like the FDA protect the public, this proclamation that healthy foods are illegal drugs exposes the government’s sordid charade”.
Somehow, I frequently notice that “health food” and “conspiracy” thinking go together. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, but I can’t help noticing a trend. This, combined with “seeing what you want to see” and not being perpetually skeptical is what leads Real Farmacy (linked to at the start) to go from a discussion on Healthy Foods to one on Constitutional Law:
Of course, if the Constitution were being followed as intended, none of this would be necessary. The FDA would not exist; but if it did, as a creation of Congress it would have no power to censor any speech whatsoever. If companies are making false claims about their products, the market will quickly punish them for it, and genuine fraud can be handled through the courts.
Right. And that is exactly how it worked with cigarettes, isn’t it? The public became aware that smoking caused cancer, that additives were put in cigarettes to make them more addictive than the nicotine in the tobacco leaves already is, and they threatened to stop smoking unless things were changed! That is why smoking ads stopped saying “the doctor recommends smoking as good for your digestion” (or whatever other claims).
And, of course, Freedom of Speech means you are free to say anything you want, like “Dr. Bartt’s cigarettes are good for Asthma, Hay Fever, All Diseases of the Throat…but Not Recommended for Children Under Six”. Of course, if smoking is causing a sore throat for some people (for some weird, unknowable reason…*wink, wink*), well, we will just add Menthol so “you don’t have to cut-down!” Ahhh, the unfettered Free Market at work!
Of course, the idea that the market will punish the makers of bad products would be completely true if we lived in a world of complete honesty. As it is, if people (the Market) begin punishing cigarette makers (in this example) for their bad products, then the companies, driven by desires for profit, will happily lie and use slick ad campaigns to “fix” the problem and manipulate the market (the people) to their advantage.
But I digress. Their political bias will have them see nearly everything the FDA does as bad, because it is an unconstitutional federal agency. My bias was telling me that the Diamond Foods’ health claims were wildly exaggerated, but they weren’t. In the end, the truth, in this case, is unexciting, but only arrived at through healthy skepticism.