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.

Awww, Nuts!

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.

English: Walnuts

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.

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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:

A box of Cheerios breakfast cereal.

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.

Mayo Clinic

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).

1932 - Nurses Like 'Em Fresh

1932 – Nurses Like ‘Em Fresh (Photo credit: clotho98)

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.

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7 responses to “Facebook Falacy #1–Walnuts”

  1. Black Ops Mikey says :

    The FDA is removing trans fat from its GRAS list: It’s about time, since we’ve known the dangers for a very long time.

    The problem is that other things such as aspartame is still on the Generally Recognized as Safe list even though if you ask neurologists who have “cured” patients of headaches, fuzzy vision, various pains, numbness and a host of other maladies by having their patients remove aspartame from their diet by dropping such things as Diet Coke, they will tell you that aspartame is bad for you. It’s still approved even though it has been shown to be a poison which affects many people adversely because, well, the guy from the Searle Corporation who was involved with its discovery (as they were looking for a neurotoxin to be used in warfare) moved on over to the FDA to facilitate its acceptance. After all, there is no one class of patients which consistently exhibits specific maladies after ingesting it: The problems are all over the map.

    Now it is true that the FDA does indeed protect us in ways not available in third world countries. In that, the system works OK even though it seems to be mediocre.

    The problem is — and this is where a great deal of skepticism needs to be invoked when addressing what the FDA says — that this is a case where technology meets politics. This never ends well for people. Those who have particular political clout make sure that those who have expertise in technology to evaluate products can never have the power to do so because it suits the needs of the politicians. Usually, it is a matter of power and money but also it is often a matter of “winning” because a person supporting a product has a personal need to be right. Anyone involved in a cult at one time or another has experienced this.

    If the FDA really wanted to do the right thing, they wouldn’t participate in such wasteful nonsense as the issue of the nuts. It’s stupid, it’s wasteful, it’s counter productive. Now we have fracking which poisons the well and creates tap water you can light on fire. Be careful not to take a shower near an open flame. You could burn. Furthermore, fracking (this sounds like pseudo swear words from Battlestar Galactica) produces methane and depletes the ozone layer in far worse ways than coal burning plants ever thought of.

    Right.

    Fracking is under the EPA. No need to bother the FDA. We must maintain boundaries so no turf is violated for a sister agency.

    Where this gets dangerous is when the FDA outright bans safe, healthy, nutritious products of great benefit while allowing dangerous products on the market.

    Great job in exposing yet another cause for great skepticism.

    Here’s hoping the stupidity won’t go anywhere.

  2. Black Ops Mikey says :

    PS: Concerning cigarettes — the Surgeon General of the United States in the mid 1800s recognized that smoking caused lung cancer.

    It took over 100 years for us to discover the same thing and have tobacco companies put a warning label on the cigarettes — which is duly ignored by smokers, since, in their rationale, they recognize that the product does produce cancer, strokes, heart disease, lower back pain and lowers I.Q. 10 points or more: It’s just that they know (and feel) that the dangers just don’t apply to them, but apply to nearly every other smoker. Moreover, in their thinking, second hand smoke doesn’t do a thing to people and they have a Constitutional right to light up when and where they feel like it and don’t care one whit about collateral damage, since the dangers of smoking absolutely do not apply to them.

    This sort of thinking also applies to a member of a cult when they think of members of a different cult which teaches exactly the same things.

    Aggressive skepticism is always in order.

  3. eSell says :

    Yeah, I find it is a thin line–in this article/post I sound like I’m defending the FDA, and Government Agencies and the Man in general, though I don’t mean to be. There IS corruption, there ARE conflicts of interest, but I think those things need to be treated as Corruption and Conflicts of Interest on a case-by-case basis. The FDA can be doing a great deal of Wrong without them being an Evil agency that is Conspiring with Big Pharma to outlaw all Natural Food.

    I think that is where the Line is, and in trying to say that the FDA isn’t an evil conspiring arm of the Government, I may be whitewashing them.

    Actually, I may be able to fix this perceived imbalance by posting an hour long video called Generation Rx, about Conflicts of Interest w/in the FDA that has led to an exaggerated over-diagnosis of ADHD in the US. Though, to tell the truth, “truth” is not usually balanced and is only rarely the mid-point between two extreme points of view, so I don’t worry too much about “balance”.

    Wow, smoking was recognized as dangerous back in the 1800s! Well, sure, let it be a personal choice for someone who wants to smoke–but I brought up the cigarette thing as an example of “the Free Market will not unfailingly punish those who produce bad/dangerous products”. There must be some regulation.

    • Black Ops Mikey says :

      I suspect that the “truth” lies somewhere within “Moral Mazes” by Robert Jackall: “What is moral is what the guy above you wants from you”. Leave your morals and ethics at the door of your home. Flip the switch when you enter the workplace.

      My observation is that it isn’t just the corporations: Government has adopted the worst of the corporate model and implemented it badly (reference Obama Care being compared to Amazon.com). It isn’t just the guy above you — it’s the pressure to compromise coming from all sides. Some person somewhere gets a wild idea of “how things should be”, it’s sold and pretty soon, everyone is supporting it en masse even though it may be a terrible idea, wrong, illegal, unethical, immoral and fattening (tongue in cheek, rolling eyes). Some of this gets way out of proportion and takes on a life of its own.

      Once an idea has taken root, it spreads and can’t be uprooted. The entire organization becomes galvanized: It’s just the way it is and it can’t be any other way. I’ve watched this happen where I’ve worked in government and in corporations. So it was OK for Eastside Medical Lab to put radioactive waste into the dumpster. So what? Radiation is all around us. Why go to extremes. If anything goes wrong, you can always turn the landfill into a superfund site. Or the failed IT project at Weyerhaeuser: They quietly wrote off $12 million to produce exactly nothing on a project $89 million project, then they turned around using the same outside vender for a projected $112 million. In the end, it failed and the entire Paperboard Packaging Business was sold off to International Paper (which then also lost money and had to shut down a significant portion of the mill they purchased as part of the deal). Or how about Pierce County which decided as a high concept to convert the payroll system off the IBM Mainframe and host it with a third party package in the “cloud”. It took over two years and the first three pay cycles ended up being run late. The banks and credit unions didn’t get the electronic transfers until the day after they were supposed to. As a result, people couldn’t use cash machines or online transactions and had to go to the teller in the bank to get any cash out. Moreover, the Sheriff’s Deputies didn’t get paid because the time card system couldn’t be processed in time. If that weren’t bad enough, Pierce County still can’t get rid of the IBM Mainframe because it still runs Budget / Finance systems and conversion off will take a minimum of 15 more months, so in this fiasco (which they were told about in 2010) will go on for some time with the taxpayers paying double for Payroll and having the system limp along in mediocre mode. As icing on the cake, the last words of the IT Director to me at the end of 2010 concerning herself: “I don’t know what I’m doing”. Incompetence lives.

      The list of collective stupidity goes on and on. Once stupid sets in, it seems impossible to eradicate. It’s a group gestalt thing.

      So you have the FDA. It is hampered by a lack of funding, a muddle of conflicting laws and regulations and incompetence in management at the highest levels. Sure, it works… sometimes. It’s better than nothing. But it’s still a mess — a house divided against itself.

      But then, it’s not alone. We’re all stumbling along in the lockstep of togetherness in total confusion saying “shoot, what do we do now” and posting Dilbert Cartoons in the cubicles.

      It’s a fine time to be a skeptic.

  4. Black Ops Mikey says :

    Say, what’s the FDA ruling on Halal blessed turkeys?

    Label or no label?

  5. eSell says :

    Presumably, there would be a Label for Halal turkey, as it would be a selling feature (to most…possibly a non-selling feature to some).

    http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets/dockets/06p0394/06p-0394-cp00001-42-Tab-39-FSIS-vol1.pdf

    Though, depending on the News Worthiness of this source, it appears that all Muslims throughout the country are free to thank Allah that Yahweh allowed the US to survive hostile natives, Revolution, and a Civil War, in order for them live in a land of Separation of Church and State:

    http://thediggerer.com/component/k2/item/242-gobbling-turkey?-give-thanks-to-god-and-allah-this-thanksgiving

    However, if making sure that all turkeys are Halal was one of the President’s “first acts after winning the 2012 election”, then the separation may be becoming even more Apparent than even Evangelical Christians might hope for.

  6. Black Ops Mikey says :

    Just to be on the safe side, I’ve switched to pecans.

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